Monday, 30 September 2013

Unlawful payments - the row continues...

Over in Pembrokeshire Council, the Corporate Governance Committee met today to discuss the 'unlawful' pension arrangements of its Chief Executive. Like Friday's Audit Committee here in Carmarthenshire, it has raised more questions than provided answers. Pembrokeshire Councillor and blogger, Jacob Williams has provided a detailed account of the meeting here. According to Cllr Williams' blog, the leader of the labour group on Pembrokeshire Council has called for the immediate suspension of its Chief Executive pending enquiries.(Oct 1st - for further details on this last point see today's Pembrokeshire Herald),
Will Labour leader Cllr Kevin Madge call for the same action in Carmarthenshire?

Pembrokeshire's accounts, despite the unlawful pension payments, were signed off, with the Independent Group (IPPG) using their majority of one vote to force it through. There is a BBC article here which reports that lawyers representing both Councils and the WAO will be meeting later this week. In Carmarthenshire, where we have a similarly minded independent group, the signing-off of the audit was at least passed to the Executive Board who will need to think extremely carefully before they do the same.

In Carmarthenshire of course there are two unlawful items relating to the Chief Executive, the pension payments and the libel indemnity.
The press office have already been in defensive overdrive.

Several bloggers have written about the unlawful libel indemnity including David Hencke; Unlawful: Auditor’s verdict on council staff using taxpayers cash to sue bloggers

With regards to the pension payments, it appears that Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire are the only two authorities in Wales which have made these 'arrangements' to allow their senior officers to opt out of the pension fund. The arrangements in Pembrokeshire were made in 2011 at a meeting in the Chief Executive's office and there doesn't appear to have been any declarations of interest. I have yet to locate any properly constituted meeting in Carmarthenshire so your guess is as good as mine as to when and where any decision took place and who was present. (Please see update below)

However, the minutes of the Executive Board meeting where the libel indemnity was granted in Carmarthenshire can be found here, there was no declaration of interest nor did anyone leave the meeting.

Update 1st October;
After contacting the council press office I learn that the pension arrangements in Carmarthenshire were decided at an Executive Board meeting on the 14th November 2011.
You would be hard pressed from the Minutes (Item 13) to guess that this particular decision took place. It was considered as an exempt item, ie press and public excluded, and it was also deemed to be 'urgent' so was not on the published agenda. The decision was included within a report on senior officers' pay and all we have with regards to the pension decision is this decidedly un-transparent sentence;

'Members also noted the impact of the changes in the HMRC Rules'.

Those responsible for applying the rubber stamp were;

Councillor M. Gravell (Chair); Councillors: M.H. Evans, W.J.W. Evans, P.M. Hughes, P.E.M. Jones, K. Madge, P.A. Palmer, H.C. Scourfield and G.H. Wooldridge; 

News round up; cuts, bulldozers and twitching curtains...

Details of the cuts of "biblical" proportions are beginning to emerge from County Hall. A report to today's (Monday) Executive Board meeting, held incidentally, and for reasons unknown, in the pleasant surroundings of the subsidised Botanical Gardens, outlines the 'Budget Outlook' until 2017.

The 'key points' of the suggested financial plan include savings to be made of £31m over the next three years, A 'worst case' scenario risk assessment put forward a possible £78m savings. The next few months will see various consultations, and as part of the process, the traditional 'Councillors' seminar' is still rumoured to be booked, ironically, at the even more heavily subsidised Parc Y Scarlets stadium.

Included in the options for the budget savings are the consideration of alternative service providers, ie privatisation; cessation in some areas to prioritise others, ie the closure of a day centre to continue to fund the council propaganda rag (no, not the other way round, not here!) and 'seeking early expressions of interest from officers in respect of the voluntary severance scheme' ie offering a quick exit to senior officers with a big payout.

In all seriousness, council leader Kev has got his work cut out. With the council appearing to be entering meltdown over tax-dodging pension scandals and unlawful payments even the usually sycophantic councillors may be shifting uneasily in their seats and be increasingly unwilling to put their names to 'difficult decisions' to follow the authority's line. Public consultation on the budget proposals is destined to begin in November, let's hope it's an improvement on the patronising twaddle churned out a couple of years ago.

It also seems that the council has a spare £100,000 to spend over the next two years towards the Dylan Thomas Centenary events. The council is part of a 'steering group' to mark the centenary of the literary man's birth. The project has the rather-less-than literary title of 'DT100' which sounds more like a type of branded ointment which the great man may have applied to his hemorrhoids. Whether the investment will leave any more of a 'lasting legacy' than already exists remains to be seen....

The Western Mail ran a 'Real Schools Guide' the other day using available data to produce a ranking table of secondary schools in Wales. Whatever your view of these league tables, the newspaper did at least make it clear how the list was compiled. Running down the list of 219 schools in Wales, what was the first Carmarthenshire school to appear (at number 44)? Llandovery's Pantycelyn of course! Making it the highest ranking school in Carmarthenshire.

The very same school which is now, thanks to the combined and unstinting efforts of Carmarthenshire Council and the Welsh Government, destined for the bulldozer..... (see previous posts)

Lastly, the Council's use of RIPA powers popped up at a recent Executive Board Member Meeting, these meetings you may recall, are held in private between one executive member and a couple of senior officers.

In this instance it is Cllr Pam Palmer who is the guardian of our rights and freedoms against the possibility of inappropriate surveillance. How comforting is that? A recommendation that 'Standard Operating Procedure for the covert use of Social Networking Sites to be included within Council RIPA procedural document' was up for Pam's rubber stamp.

After some considerable googling, as there are no further details in the published minutes, it seems this refers to the creation of an undercover online identity to infiltate/befriend suspected wrongdoers in the course of an investigation. For Councils I suspect this will largely relate to trading standards operations rather than questions of national security, but just in case, be warned and if you are suddenly followed by someone with a mysterious could be Pam...

Saturday, 28 September 2013

'Unlawful' expenditure - more thoughts

I have, of course been keeping a very close eye on the developments this week with regards to the Appointed Auditor and Carmarthenshire County Council. The two 'unlawful' payments were the main subject of yesterday's Audit Committee meeting and the South Wales Guardian has again showed its mettle with a good report.

Over in Pembrokeshire, the Chief Executive is also under fire over the same pension arrangements which have been revealed in Carmarthenshire. He, on the other hand is not facing the revelation of an unlawful indemnity payment as well.

The significance of yesterday's meeting was that, for the first time, and despite attempts to bar and limit discussion, the facade is beginning to crumble and the findings of the auditor even persuaded the Members to refuse to sign off the report and to pass that responsibility to the Executive Board which so readily approved the payments.

This sort of action is unheard of in Carmarthenshire Council circles.

The auditor has refused to sign off the accounts until these issues are resolved. He also adds, in the report that there are other issues, including complaints made by members of the public which need to be addressed before completion.
"The audit cannot be formally concluded and an audit certificate issued until further enquiries regarding the lawfulness of transactions mentioned above and enquiries arising from matters raised by members of the public have been formally completed" (Anthony Barrett, Appointed Auditor, Wales Audit Office)

The circumstances surrounding the meeting where the indemnity was granted is also the subject of complaints, and that has yet to be determined by the Wales Audit Office itself. To put it simply, the question whether the officer concerned should have declared an interest, been present at the meeting and have contributed to the report is under consideration.

The exposure of the pension scandal and the 'unlawful' libel indemnity have opened up channels which will enable questions over other decisions to be brought to the forefront, the Towy Community Church and the Parc y Scarlet's stadium to name but two.

Concerns over the former were raised with the auditors some time ago. As for the latter, the auditors are, as I understand, unimpressed that the council has failed to secure it's asset, the stadium, should the club go bust. There is currently nothing stopping receivers seizing it should that happen - it would not automatically revert back to the council.

I am, as you may imagine, personally and primarily concerned at the moment with the decision over the libel indemnity. The possible consequences; the fact that it relates to an ongoing legal action as well as being the subject of legal discussions between lawyers acting on behalf of the council and the auditors, makes it difficult for me to comment very much at the moment. It is however, very significant.

On a more general point I first raised my concerns over the lawfulness of the 'libel cost amendment' to the council's constitution, which enabled such an indemnity, with the local auditors back in 2008. Regular, and long term followers of this blog will be aware of that. This week's decision that the payment itself was unlawful may have much wider implications concerning other councils who may have been considering similar actions as well as raising important legal questions.

However, I will wait for further developments, including the long awaited decision over the 'indemnity' meeting itself.

Jonathan Edwards, Plaid Cymru MP for Carmarthenshire East and Dinefwr, issued this comment on Friday;

“In the case of Carmarthenshire council the opinion of the Appointed Auditor is very clear – he considers two expenditures relating to the Chief Executive to be unlawful.

“Carmarthenshire residents need answers.  What advice was sought about the legality of these two expenditures?  How much did that advice cost county taxpayers?  Who took the decision to approve the Chief Executive’s new pension arrangements?  Who is accountable for these decisions?

“As the teams of lawyers from both the Audit Office and the council go back and forth debating the legality of the actions, how much more will this cost county taxpayers?

“It seems as if it’s another day and yet another question mark hanging over county hall. 

“Carmarthenshire needs a political reboot and an end to what I consider to be too cosy a relationship between the ruling Labour and Independent Executive and the council’s senior management. 

“The residents of Carmarthenshire deserve nothing less than a full investigation into how almost £40,000 of public money has been spent unlawfully.”


South Wales Guardian; County Hall showdown ends in legal stand-off over 'unlawful' claims against Carmarthenshire county council

Previous post here; Libel indemnity 'unlawful' 

BBC report here; Carmarthenshire blogger row: Council libel costs pledge 'unlawful

For a detailed report on the situation in Pembrokeshire, I strongly recommend Jacob Williams' blogpost; Pension Potty

...and if you haven't already, please go and read Cneifiwr's recent reports.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Libel indemnity 'unlawful'

Carmarthenshire Council's Appointed Auditor, Anthony Barrett, has told the council he is of the view that the indemnity granted to the Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire Council, Mark James was unlawful. The indemnity was granted to bring a counter-claim for libel against me at a meeting of the Executive Board on the 23rd January 2012.

The BBC has published an article on the subject today; Carmarthenshire blogger row; Council libel costs pledge unlawful.

Rhodri Glyn Thomas, my local Plaid Cymru AM issued this statement this afternoon;

“Carmarthenshire residents will quite rightly be deeply concerned by the findings of the appointed auditor in that he considers two financial transactions by the County Council to be unlawful.

“For over three years Jonathan Edwards MP and I have raised our concern that taxpayers’ money was being used to indemnify the costs of the Chief Executive’s legal action.

“As a result, Carmarthenshire County Council’s Chief Executive has been the subject of questions to the First Minister of Wales and the UK Secretary of State for Local Government.

“The report’s findings in respect of two unlawful transactions justify the efforts that both Jonathan Edwards and I, as elected representatives, have put into this matter.  The conclusion of the auditor in respect of the indemnity vindicates our position over the last three years.

“The report is exceptionally damaging for the reputation of Carmarthenshire and I am firmly of the opinion that officials and elected members of the council’s Executive must be held accountable for their actions.”

The Appointed Auditor also found another spending decision unlawful. This related to a council payment of £16,353 in lieu of pension contributions to Mr James.

The council are of the opinion that both payments were lawful.

The @SWGuardian has also, this evening, published an article concerning the two unlawful payments.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Local government transparency - Welsh Minister responds

During last month's mid-summer spat between Eric Pickles and the Welsh Government over filming meetings, blogging etc (see here) I dropped a line to Ms Lesley Griffiths, the Welsh Local Government minister, on that very topic. After the usual seventeen-working-days wait I had a reply from the 'team', which I have published for your information, along with my enquiry, in full below.

Whether councillors are allowed to tweet from meetings, as opposed to people in the public gallery and the press, remains unclear. I believe Carmarthenshire Council forbid the activity, not that there'd be a sudden rush of course...

As for publishing spending details, surely this is becoming essential as budgets become tighter. The fact that only three out of twenty two local authorities currently do this is inadequate to say the least. Welsh Government and local councils cannot continue to emphasize the importance of scrutiny, which they all do, without giving residents, and councillors of course, the facts and means to scrutinize.

As for filming meetings, I don't think 'encouragement' is going to be enough.

To; Minister for Local Government, Wales. 
Dear Ms Griffiths 
As I enquired on Twitter, I would like to know what further steps the Welsh Government will be making to facilitate citizen journalism given the critical comments made by the Minister for Local Government in England. 
I am particularly interested to know when the Welsh Government will be issuing similar guidance to Welsh local authorities to open up their meetings to enable the public to film and tweet, blog etc. I believe such guidance is long overdue and the principles of transparency should cross devolved boundaries and party politics. 
I would also like to know when guidance will be issued to require Welsh local authorities to publish all their spending details in an appropriate format. 
Your predecessor, Mr Carl Sargeant stated that he would 'encourage' councils to allow filming but there has been little progress. The money made available by the Welsh Government to fund webcasting of council meetings was welcome but the principle for public filming must, in my opinion, be established. 
I look forward to your comments,
Jacqui Thompson

And the reply.....

Welsh Government 
Eich cyf/Your ref
Ein cyf/Our ref TO/LG/01688/13
20th September 2013 
Dear Mrs Thompson 
Citizen Journalism 
Thank you for your e-mail of 27th August, sent to the Minister for Local Government and Government Business. I have been asked to respond. 
The Minister has placed on has placed on record her support to Local Authorities, who have allowed their meetings to become more accessible to the public. Although not a requirement on Local Authorities, the Minister has encouraged them to make arrangements in the interests of public engagement and transparency. 
At present 20 of the 22 Local Authorities in Wales now allow blogging and tweeting from public galleries, with another two yet to develop policies. 
The Welsh Government does not intend to issue guidance to welsh Local Authorities, allowing filming and blogging is a matter for each local authority to decide for itself, but the Minister urges all councils to give the matter serious consideration. 
The Minister has continued to voice her support for the principles of openness and transparency with regards to the publishing of public expenditure data. A great deal of data is already published and the Minister has not seen any evidence to demonstrate that any benefit would be obtained by making it a statutory requirement for Local Authorities to publish such information or that this would be an effective way to achieve transparency. 
It is for each authority to decide how it deploys its resources to provide the best value for money for its citizens and to be accountable to its electorate for the decisions it makes.
Three authorities in Wales do currently publish details if expenditure over £500. These are Monmouthshire, Newport and the Vale of Glamorgan. 
Yours faithfully.

Scrutiny, Democracy & Participation Team

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Tegwen and the old boys' brigade

This week's Llanelli Star reports on a recent altercation at a meeting of Llanelli Rural Council. A "men only" invitation to a £35 a head gala dinner from the Welsh Guards Rugby Reunion Club in aid of a soldiers charity had been received. The 'blue humour' of the after-dinner speaker might offend female ears, and it was, apparently, an "all male preserve". Presumably 'blue' equates to 'misogynist'.

County Councillor Sian Caiach, who is also on the Rural Council, was understandably, er, surprised and suggested they "...write back to them and say it is very ignorant in this day and age to invite public representatives to something that is men-only."

However, it was no problem at all for Deputy Leader of Carmarthenshire County Council and Executive Board Member for EQUALITIES, Cllr Tegwen Devichand (Lab) who is also on the Rural Council. She clearly recognises her place in society and is quoted as saying; "I have no problem. It is the old boys' brigade and it is set in stone." 

Oh dear. At least we know that if the 'old boys' brigade' exists in County Hall it will remain fully supported and safe in the hands of Tegwen. She is one of two deputy Leaders (yes, there are two, the other is Cllr Pam Palmer leader of the 'Independent' Party) and they both enjoy a generous allowance of £31,120 per year plus expenses, each. 

Equalities Champion...and supporter of the 'old boys' brigade',  Cllr  Devichand

Friday, 13 September 2013

Planning - Practising what we preach

Interesting report in the South Wales Guardian this week over the refusal to allow a butcher in Llandeilo to replace his windows with UPVC when many of the surrounding properties have already done so, some without permission. It's in a Conservation Area and yes, the whole UPVC/wood argument is often contentious. The Head of Planning, defending the recommendation to refuse, said that the materials were 'inappropriate' and "...we try to provide an element of consistency. We have a statutory duty to enhance conservations areas. We are practicing what we preach."

Cllr Emlyn Dole (Plaid) who sits on the planning committee asked the Head of Planning if wooden windows were going to be used in the new secondary school about half a mile away, given that it was in an area of natural beauty. The Head of Planning said he couldn't remember but that wood had been used on 'other iconic buildings'. The word iconic, in Carmarthenshire council terms is somewhat overused, the latest building given that description being the newly refurbished multi-storey car park in Llanelli.

Anyway, back to Statutory Duties and practising what we preach. The plans for the new superschool mentioned by Cllr Dole show that, in fact, powder-coated aluminium windows will be used, not wood.
The site is also located in the Tywi Valley Special Landscape Area and the Tywi Valley Registered Landscape of Outstanding Historic Interest. It is also in close proximity to the River Tywi Special Area of Conservation and the Dinefwr Estate SSSI. The report to the planning committee stated that the school buildings will 'challenge' the objectives of the council's UDP policies and cause 'harm to the character and appearance' of the landscape but the 'benefits to the community' were deemed to outweigh these, and numerous other concerns, which I'll not go into again here. The council, naturally, approved its own application.

Practising what we preach? The butcher from Llandeilo must be wondering why he couldn't have his windows....

Thursday, 12 September 2013 for Listening - September council meeting

The usual commentary of full council meetings is no longer necessary as you can watch it for yourself, you are welcome to go straight to the archived webcast here if you wish (should be on there today). There is some purpose though in making a few observations which can aid the uninitiated viewer to understand the ritual played out in the Chamber.

The council press office obliged this month by heralding the meeting with a couple of tweets, one of which said 'See what your local councillor has to say at tomorrow’s Full Council, live online from 10am'. Those of us in the sleepy ward of Cilycwm waited with baited breath to see what our veteran 'independent' councillor Tom Theophilus was going to say...or Llandovery's Cllr Ivor Jackson...would the confusion and disruption to the children of Pantycelyn as half of them now have to trek to Tregib in Llandeilo be mentioned? The overpriced new uniform for the 'superschool'? Of course not.

Anyway, back to the meeting and it became clear that anyone north of Llandeilo would be disappointed, although the member for Cilycwm was tasked with delivering the council prayer. He gave thanks for something to do with harvests and winter and sat down. He spoke once more to congratulate a constituent on winning an Eisteddfod prize.

Of course this is the council who's contribution to a recent report by 'Christians in Parliament' was “It is important that the position of the council as a secular institution is preserved.” (see Mercy Ministries - questions need to be asked). I suppose we can only thank our lucky stars that their evangelical partners aren't brought in to lead the prayers. Perhaps they, along with a couple of other organisations are busy taking school assemblies and saving the souls of our 4 year olds from an eternal conscious punishment.

You may also notice that no decisions were actually made yesterday, that's partly because, as one councillor pointed out, only the executive board do that, and they in turn are a rubber stamp for the officers leading the show. The finely crafted agenda contained no awkward Motions, nothing that needed a decision, no public questions and of course, as of a few months ago, no urgent business. An added bonus for the assembled elite was possibly the broken leg of the outspoken Plaid Cllr Darren Price which kept him away for the day. Let's hope he will be sufficiently mobile in time for the next meeting.

There was a lengthy introduction from the acting Head of Law about the rules of declaring interests and she noted that some councillors seemed confused about it all. The main things they had to worry about apparently was whether or not they, or their families would directly benefit, financially or otherwise, from any decisions. We must assume that naturally and logically this would apply to officers as well.

The purpose of Ms Rees Jones speech, I would imagine, was to deter both Cllr Caiach and Cllr Bill Thomas from pouring untreated sewage on the filmed proceedings by using the moment to declare their prejudicial interest in planning policy which aggravates the pollution along the Llanelli Riviera. They weren't deterred though and Cllr Caiach said she'd be leaving the meeting when the planning reports came up as the authority's attitude turned her stomach.

The opposition used two main points of attack, the Worst Council in Wales survey findings and the dire report by the Wales Audit Office over the council's grant compliance procedures. Unfortunately, these did little more than give the officers and Lab/ind administration the excuse to churn out some lengthy spin.

The 'Worst in Wales' survey result was the one that showed how disengaged the public felt from local decision making. The Plaid leader demanded an explanation from the ruling political group..and so the Chief Executive duly responded. The survey didn't just apply to the council, he said, it was other services too, the health board for instance. No it wasn't, said several councillors, it was in black and white and related solely to the council, but Mr James was adamant. The public perception that the council didn't listen was plainly wrong, this was a 'listening' council.

Plaid Cllr Alun Lenny commented that all the PR spin in the world wouldn't improve transparency, but during the discussion the Chief Executive said that the theme of the day was 'Listening' and concentrated on the positive. It was all a bit Sesame Street. In addition he mentioned that it was one of their 'modern apprentices' who had written the council report on the survey, I'm not sure what this extra information was necessary, perhaps the apprentice hasn't been told yet that negative facts and figures are not supposed to be included in such publicly available documents.

A similar response met the Wales Audit Office report later in the meeting. The WAO had said there was a long history of problems with grant compliance, serious failings in fact. The council had lost some funding as a result but more importantly, they suggested that incorrect procedures and lack of record keeping etc was possibly not confined to the grant office. Cllr Cefin Campbell who brought up the report made an oblique reference to Caerphilly, though didn't dare name the authority.

Mr James responded that the lost £160k in grant funds was insignificant in the grand scheme of things and said that they often disagreed with the WAO, and when they had a talk with them, they usually changed their minds. He said that some officers failed to keep proper records. The Head of Financial Services continued the theme and described the problems as 'natural' and that the WAO took an 'aggressive stance'.
Is a critical finding an 'aggressive stance' then? The problem, he said, was with temporary staff but further training was in hand. Not the fault of anyone further up the food chain then. Labour Cllr Calum Higgins commented, oddly, that the WAO were possibly doing it for the money as increased checks meant increased fees. Perhaps they should write to the WAO and tell them not to be so picky...whilst mentioning the 'error in the accounts'.

Whilst on the subject of other authorities, bloggers' attention was caught by a sudden mention of Barnet Council. Sadly it wasn't to arrange a council twinning meeting with the London borough, a council with an equal love of smoke and mirrors, or even to heap praise on the Barnet bloggers and send a personal invitation to Mrs Angry to address the next meeting. It was related to a recent high court judgement over parking charges and the conclusion that councils could not use hiked up charges as a stealth tax. The Chief Executive said that the judgement didn't apply to them, the parking revenue went back into the town centres. Maybe someone will ask for the figures. Anyway, apparently everyone was perfectly happy with car park charges and Carmarthen was a 'paradise for shoppers'. Kev agreed that people weren't put off. I don't suppose the 'people' have much choice really. He added, somewhat irrelevantly and not for the first time that day that the authority had created 1000s of jobs. Maybe we could have the figures for that too.

We heard several times today that Carmarthen, and particularly St Catherine's Walk is vying to become the centre of the known world and according to the Chief Executive this was entirely down to the council, others claimed it had more to do with private investment. I know from my own shopping experiences that Poundland does a far brisker trade than the expensive chains in St Catherine's Walk.
Kev, in one of his slightly more blustery speeches (he seemed a bit cross yesterday, perhaps it's the change in the weather, or an impending change in leadership, who knows) mentioned the bus load of pensioners from Bridgend, I could be wrong but I'm sure he's mentioned them before. Is he paying them to make regular appreciative subsidised trips to Carmarthen, are there undercover council press officers travelling with them incognito?

Refreshingly, one councillor wanted to know a little more detail about an 'exempt' item at a recent Exec Board meeting. It concerned Glyn Abbey Golf Club which had been granted a further three years of rent relief. He wondered how much this was costing the authority. The information, he was told, would be provided. Given the previous discussion involving parking charges and the scaled down free parking days (five a year) because the authority couldn't afford to lose the revenue, it was a timely enquiry.

Before leaving the meeting Cllr Caiach took another stab at asking about her 'tracked' email. She'd asked the Head of Law for an explanation months ago and there was still no reply although she understood that there was some sort of draft report about 'members' emails' somewhere in the system. The Head of Law replied that she thought Cllr Caiach was complaining to the Information Commissioner so hadn't bothered with a direct response. Cllr Caiach reminded her that she had said she intends to go to the ICO, but procedure would preclude her from doing so until she'd had a response from the authority. I think she assumed that Ms Rees Jones would be familiar with such standard procedures.

As I said, the full content of the meeting will be available on archive some time today, my apologies for any unintentional inaccuracies.

Cllr Caiach's letter in the paper - and the Scarlets' pennies.

Cllr Sian Caiach's letter below was published in this week's South Wales Guardian, it is self explanatory. Regular readers will be aware of the background of the Parc Y Scarlets stadium which 'wouldn't cost the taxpayer a penny'. Whether the Llanelli Star also printed the letter I don't know.

As an update to Cllr Caiach's concerns about the 'allowable costs' and payments associated with the £850,000 land deal which, you may remember involved the development of a Marston's pub, her Freedom of Information request for a detailed breakdown was refused under 'commercial sensitivity', despite the arrangement involving public money. As per usual.

There is considerable speculation for the reason why representatives from Scarlets Regional Ltd will be at October's council meeting. The slashed interest on the council loan and the waiving of contributions to the maintenance (sinking) fund are up for a three year review, maybe it has something to do with that, we'll wait and see. Cllr Caiach is probably right though and its unlikely they'll be presenting a giant cheque to the taxpayers of Carmarthenshire.
Dear Editor 
As a  Carmarthenshire County Councillor I am concerned that we, as all councils do, face major cuts in our funding and this may well cause further cuts in our services including schools, care of the elderly, roads, parks, libraries , grants to charities, etc. 
I am not aware of any plans to consult the public as to where these cuts should fall. 
I am especially concerned, at the large amount of money we give to the Scarlets Rugby Club, year on year. after financing their new stadium. It was promised back in 2007 that the project would not cost the local council taxpayer a penny. Unfortunately, it apparently turned out to be hundreds of millions of pennies. 
Recently we sold an area of public land, a council owned car park leased to the Scarlets, for £850,000  I'm told, with the proceeds being shared between the council and the Scarlets. I'm informed by the Council's Finance department that I'm not allowed to know the figures as to who got what. I have made a Freedom of Information Act request but this too may be refused eventually, as have others related to the Scarlets. 
I am told that the Club will attend a  Carmarthenshire Council meeting in October with all Councillors present. I cannot find out the exact reason for their visit but suspect it is more likely to be with a begging bowl than a donation to our funds. 
I know that many supporters of the Club feel that the financial sacrifices made by the people of Carmarthenshire to build the stadium and give ongoing financial support were well worth it, Certainly, with the Club's published accounts showing a seriously poor financial position, we are unlikely to get anything back for the foreseeable future. According to the financial package from the council, I believe the Scarlets only pay any revenue back when and if the club makes a 7 figure annual profit. Until then they have free rental and in previous years did not even put the agreed £25,000 per year into a fund for stadium upkeep. 
Should our Council keep funding a private Rugby Club now, when every penny given to the Scarlets is one less for front line services. 
Elite Sports Clubs generally need very rich people to fund them, who can afford the likely financial losses. 
Surely the people of Carmarthenshire should have their say in whether or not we continue to subsidize this rugby region? 
Councillor Sian Caiach
People First
Hengoed Ward
(for further background to the issues mentioned in the letter please search the blog, google etc. As a footnote, the twitter feed of the small Ammanford based South Wales Guardian, @SWGuardian, has sprung into life and if for no other reason than their solid stance against pressure from County Hall last year, they deserve a follow) 

Friday, 6 September 2013

Libel case - Permission to Appeal decision

I have been granted permission to appeal on one ground relating to Mark James’ counterclaim, and my legal team have now filed a request with the Court of Appeal for an oral hearing at which I will renew my application for permission on other grounds relating to both my claim and the counterclaim.

I am awaiting confirmation and a date for that oral hearing from the Court of Appeal.

William McCormick QC will appear on my behalf.


17th September;

The hearing date has now been listed for the 16th December 2013 at the Royal Courts of Justice.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Caerphilly council fraud investigation continues

As this blog has followed the continuing investigation into Caerphilly Council's Chief Executive Anthony O'Sullivan and his acting successor, Nigel Barnett, the latest news, such as it is, is that both have had their bail renewed. Avon and Somerset Police have not yet concluded their investigations and it remains to be seen whether the pair will be charged with fraud and misconduct in public office.

To refresh your memory, Caerphilly's Chief Executive was suspended after a Wales Audit Office report found that a pay rise for himself and other senior officers was unlawful. After a relatively brisk investigation the WAO found that the circumstances surrounding the meeting where the pay rises were approved were far from above board and therefore the awards were unlawful. The Chief Executive not only had input into the report awarding himself the cash but he did not declare a financial interest nor recuse himself from the meeting, which hadn't been advertised either.

Both men were arrested in July. This saga also put pressure on  the Welsh Government to make a significant u-turn and require Senior officers pay to be set by an independent panel rather than leaving it to the local council itself.

(please use searchbox for previous posts on this blog)

Autumn term

The Autumn Term at County Hall appears to be lumbering into action with the agenda for next Wednesday's full council meeting now published. The meeting will be webcast of course, and with a fair few committee reports coming up for rubber stamping it will be interesting to see whether those in charge of proceedings manage to prevent any wayward discussions under the spotlight of the camera.

There are numerous issues within the reports such as the unspent £1.5m S106 money languishing in vaults and the minutes of the last audit committee meeting where, with regards to grant management, the "Committee as a whole expressed grave concern regarding the content of the report and was extremely disappointed that the issue of non compliance with procedures had continued for a number of years without being rectified." (see earlier post here) . And will anyone dare bring up the taboo subject of the Council, the Towy Community Church and the Mercy Ministries?

Anyway, be sure to watch at 10am next Wednesday, or have a look at the archive later.

The leader of the Plaid group (the largest group on the council), Cllr Peter Hughes Griffiths has made another offer to Kev and Pam to join them in forming a rainbow coalition to grapple with the 'difficult decisions' ahead. Previous overtures have been rejected and Kev and Pam have yet to comment on Cllr Griffiths letter. Can't see it happening myself, and to be honest, for the failing democratic health of Carmarthenshire council, there needs to be an opposition.

For anyone who has endured the experience of trying to view the Register of Members' Interests Gifts and Hospitality (see The Sacred Parchments) the next meeting of the Standards Committee hints that access may be improved. The Local Democracy Bill which is going through the Senedd will require this register to be published online. Carmarthenshire's neighbours, Swansea and Pembrokeshire already do. The agenda item doesn't exactly say they will, but might have to in the near future...shock, horror.

The Council press office have got all exited over the Queen's Baton, heralding the Commonwealth Games, which will be visiting the county for the day next May, and council officers have formed a Steering Committee to 'maximise the baton visit'. As you do.

Lastly, some depressing news from Neath Port Talbot Council as they chose to remain in the dark ages and decided not to webcast meetings nor allow the public to film/photograph from the public gallery. The reason given to not webcast is the ongoing cost that would be incurred. There is a Welsh Government grant available to assist with the set up of course. Unfortunately there's no similar grant available to fund senior officers' pay at NPT council with the Chief Executive on around £150k and at least four other officers joining the over £100k club.
To allow the public to film or record doesn't cost anything. Wonder what Mr Pickles would make of it.