Wednesday, 30 October 2013

'Unlawful' payments - A full debate?

This week's South Wales Guardian reports that Council leader Kevin Madge has again promised a 'full debate' over the 'unlawful' payments at the next council meeting on the 13th November;

Kevin Madge pledges debate over allegations against Carmarthenshire county council

'Carmarthenshire County Council leader Kevin Madge has repeated his pledge that there will be “a full debate” on two transactions involving chief executive Mark James at next month’s meeting of full council.

The Wales Audit Office has alleged the granting of a £23,217 indemnity to pay Mr James’ costs in his libel case and counter claim against blogger Jacqui Thompson, plus £16,353 paid in lieu of pension contributions, are unlawful.

The county council maintains it sought legal advice prior to the payments being made and that both transactions were lawful.

Cllr Madge has now stressed the importance of a debate on how and why the transactions were made. “The public have a right to know and we will make all the necessary papers available,” he told the Guardian. “We clearly need a debate on this – and I look forward to that debate.”

We have yet to see how this will be presented on the agenda or whether Cllr Madge and co are merely trying to avoid any unpleasant Motions which may hit the fan in the Chamber next month.
Let's hope by 'full debate' Cllr Madge actually means 'we'll hear both sides of the argument' because given his statement above it's not looking likely. I suspect that in the full glare of the webcams this is going to be a very carefully choreographed exercise.

The public have the right to know all sides of this story not merely the council's own justification. The issue is not 'how' and 'why' the transactions were made, the issue is that they were 'unlawful'. Will 'all necessary papers' include the legal advice given to the council at the time of both decisions and commissioned since the appointed auditor's findings? Will representatives from the appointed auditor's office be invited to attend and give their views? Hopefully the auditors will have published a Public Interest Report into the matter by then which will shed further light on the issues. It will also be interesting to see whether any declarations of interest are made.

I wonder what Eric Pickles MP is making of these recent developments? Back in March he said he was "deeply unhappy" about the "tendency" for local authorities to use the "resources of the public" to take legal action....

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Exit packages

The Western Mail reports today on the generous exit packages paid out to senior council officers at Rhondda Cynon Taf Council. Five senior employees who left in the most recent financial year received £631,000 between them. An updated report suggests that the council tax-payers of the borough are about to revolt.

These figures have been available in council accounts for the past couple of years and we can see that in Carmarthenshire, over the past three years, ten staff within the £80,000 to £150,000 pay range were paid a total of £993,360 in severance. Two members of staff, in the £100,000 to £150,000 range accounted for £261,423 of that figure. Add to that the unexplained 'error' in the accounts, the equally 'unexplained advance payment of Returning Officer fees; the 'unlawful' payments; a senior officer rich list the envy of many a town hall and the majority of our councillors relegated to speechless bystanders, its a wonder Carmarthenshire residents aren't revolting...

I suspect similar exit packages are to be found across all Welsh councils, multiplied over twenty two local authorities. In fact, I have grown so accustomed to looking at exit packages, senior salaries and expenses; all with a row of noughts before the decimal point, that nowadays I have to ask a slightly less interested member of the family to have a quick look, I can then observe the initial reaction which is usually 'bloody 'ell', or words similar. I must be conditioned.

With councils looking to save squillions over the next few years and identifying job losses as a solution, it looks like it's a lot cheaper, to axe the low paid than it is to satisfy the severance deals of the top earners.

More news from Caerphilly Council where a mysterious agenda item has aroused interest. It's all 'exempt' from the prying public and press and couched in sinister terms but appears to involve a 'procedural review' relating to disciplinary matter concerning 'statutory officers'. You would think, after all that's happened in the borough, any discussions about the senior officer pay scandal, which is currently being investigated by the police, should be held in the full sunlight of transparency. Apparently not (Western Mail article)

Lastly, following the disturbing story of Kim Shaw, the teacher who was subject to undercover surveillance by Caerphilly Council (yes it's them again) the BBC asked the remaining twenty one local authorities whether or not they spied on their staff under their investigatory powers. Five said they had done so, but six failed to respond to the question at all, one of which was Carmarthenshire Council....

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Not the only option

We don't know when the council are going to get round to letting the rest of the county know its planned programme of cuts. The 'Budget seminar' is probably best forgotten. I expect it seemed quite a good idea at the time, but by the time the plan had twisted its way through the paranoia of County Hall it became an expensive, pointless PR exercise.

Cllr Caiach noted her own observations, on this blog, that none of the 74 councillors were given copies of the proposals, she graciously suggests there might be a shortage of staff to work the photocopier, surely it wasn't a reluctance to leave hard evidence lying around?  The council promises further consultation, let's hope there's an improvement.

The council will concentrate on cutting 'non-statutory' services, ie services it doesn't have to provide. Whether commissioning legal advice to defend 'unlawful' decisions is 'statutory' I wouldn't know. Or for that matter the chauffeurs, executive motors and other civic paraphernalia. I'm not entirely sure it has to provide such a comprehensive press office either which acts over and above it's duties rather than just let you know when the bins are being emptied. I'm not sure I can live with only four instead of six editions of the 'Carmarthenshire News' every year either....

Not all senior posts are statutory. The council recently held an expensive nationwide selection process to replace the retiring Director of Technical Services, a non-statutory post. It was finally whittled down to the last three interviewees, none of whom were appointed. The process now starts again.

As happened three years ago, and has happened again now, the council bailed out it's favourite rugby team and propped up the stadium just before the raft of cuts were announced. This must be particularly difficult to swallow for all those volunteers trying to run local sports activities who will see their parks sold off and the charges rocketing. By the way, I have also noticed that the council is currently carrying job adverts for Scarlets Regional Ltd on it's taxpayer funded website. Is the club paying for this? If not, then why not.

The details and sums of cash paid to external consultants is another unknown quantity - as we heard at the last meeting, Cllr Darren Price has been waiting a year and a half for an officer's report on the matter. The Wales Audit Office has already issued a national report suggesting that taxpayers might not be getting value for money when it comes to the commissioning of consultants.

The list is self explanatory; job losses; further rural isolation for the elderly; further damage to town centres through increased parking charges and more hits on parents' pockets and sixth form education with school transport cuts. Further outsourcing to the private sector is proposed for the elderly and vulnerable, and presumably welfare rights support and youth services will be taken care of by the Towy Community Church...

Cuts to frontline services are not the only option, there are other areas which could be examined and that is why open, frank and clear consultation will be essential, but will doubtless remain absent, over the coming months. It is fortunate that the council will be webcasting meetings; even if it is only full council, it's better than nothing and for the first time in its history you will at least have glimpse of the budget process from the comfort of your armchair.

On the subject of openness, Ceredigion Council is the latest to start webcasting its meetings. As Cneifiwr reports, the whole tone of the meeting, on the face of it at least, was markedly different from the poisoned atmosphere we currently witness in Carmarthenshire's Chamber of horrors.

(Just a reminder, I have a Facebook page here to track progress of public filming and webcasting developments in Wales and beyond) 

Friday, 25 October 2013

Filming council meetings - A new law for England

(7th November; Update at the end of this post; the wording of the proposed amendment to allow filming)

Earlier in the summer it became clear that councils in England were not following the guidance issued by Eric Pickles MP to allow public filming, tweeting etc at council meetings.

The minister threatened to legislate to ensure compliance and it seems he has done just that with an announcement today that "a new law will be put before Parliament to give the press and public new rights to film and report council meetings.
The legal changes to be sent to Parliament by Mr Pickles will enshrine in the law the right of residents, bloggers and journalists to report, blog, tweet and film council meetings in England."

The new laws will form an amendment to the Local Audit and Accountability Bill which is going through parliament. It will, of course only apply to England.

Earlier this year an attempt to amend the Welsh Local Democracy Bill to incorporate similar rights for Welsh residents was rejected by the Welsh Government.

Back in June Mr Pickles wrote to his Welsh Government counterpart concerned that "freedom of speech in Wales is being suppressed and as a result, waste corruption and incompetence is potentially being covered up" and a further DCLG statement said "The Labour Administration in Wales is openly opposing the right for journalists and bloggers to tweet, film and report meetings. It is obscene that Welsh bloggers are being handcuffed and arrested in Wales for reporting meetings because they don't have the legal rights that English bloggers now have. No amount of bluster can disguise the fact that the Labour Party are the enemies of openness and on the side of town hall tyranny."

Whatever the politics of it all, there needs to be a greater drive for transparency and accountability in Wales, a culture change in fact, as recent revelations in Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire and Caerphilly clearly illustrate.

Update 28th October;
Further reports include 'Memo to councils - join the 21st century and let the people film meetings' from the Guardian's Greenslade Blog. A group of Journalism lecturers from Leeds University have written an open letter to urge Leeds City Councillors to allow filming when they discuss it today;

 "...At a time when important decisions are being made about the future of our city, the statutory and discretionary services provided for our citizens, the built environment, transport, education and other vital matters it can only be to the benefit of members to ensure that the process of decision making is transparent.

To be fully informed residents need to know not only the decisions reached, but also the discussion that leads to these conclusions. More than ever members bear heavy responsibility for representing residents, businesses and institutions, and we believe they should be both seen and heard making those representations.

Disseminating audio and video from council meeting can open the process to many more residents than are able to spare the time in busy, hard-working lives to attend meetings in person. Technology has moved on from the era in which the magnificent civic hall was built....."

Update 29th October;

As promised Mr Pickles introduced the amendment yesterday in parliament, here's the link to Hansard;

Update 7th November;
The following amendment to the Local Audit and Accountability Bill have been proposed by Brandon Lewis MP to allow filming in England. Interestingly it includes the creation of 'new offences'.

Access to local government meetings and documents

To move the following Clause:—

(1) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision for and in connection
with allowing persons—
(a) to film, photograph or make sound recordings of proceedings at a
meeting of a body to which this section applies, or of a committee or subcommittee
of such a body;
(b) to use other means for enabling persons not present at such a meeting to
see or hear proceedings at the meeting, as it takes place or later;
(c) to report or provide commentary on the proceedings at such a meeting,
orally or in writing, so that the report or commentary is available, as the
meeting takes place or later, to persons not present at the meeting.

(2) Regulations under subsection (1) may in particular make provision—
(a) for allowing persons to make available to the public or a section of the
public using any medium (including the internet) things produced as a
result of activities within that subsection;
(b) about the facilities to be made available by bodies to which the
regulations apply to enable persons to carry on such activities;
(c) about the steps to be taken by persons before carrying on such activities;
(d) about the circumstances in which persons may not carry on such
activities, including for enabling a person specified in the regulations to
prevent them from doing so in the circumstances specified in the

(3) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision—
(a) for requiring written records to be kept of decisions that are of a kind
specified in the regulations and are taken by an officer of a body to which
this section applies,
(b) with respect to the information that is to be included in those written
records (including information as to the reasons for any decision);
(c) for requiring any such written records, or any documents connected with
the decisions to which they relate, to be supplied or made available to
members of the body, to the public or to other persons;
(d) for the creation of offences in respect of any rights or requirements
conferred or imposed by the regulations.

(4) The Secretary of State may by regulations provide that any of the following may
or must be given or made available by electronic means—
(a) any notice which is required by the Public Bodies (Admission to
Meetings) Act 1960, Part 5A of the Local Government Act 1972 (access
to meetings and documents of certain authorities etc) or regulations under
this section to be given by a body to which this section applies;
(b) any document relating to such a body which is required by that Part or
those regulations to be open to inspection.

(5) Regulations under this section may, in particular, amend or repeal any provision
(a) the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960,
(b) Part 5A or section 228 (inspection of documents) of the Local
Government Act 1972, or
(c) section 58 of the Greater London Authority Act 1999 (application of Part
5A to the London Assembly).
(6) Subject to subsections (7) and (8), this section applies to—
(a) a district council,
(b) a county council in England,
(c) a London borough council,
(d) the London Assembly,
(e) the Common Council of the City of London in its capacity as a local
authority or police authority,
(f) the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority,
(g) Transport for London,
(h) a joint authority established under Part 4 of the Local Government Act
(i) an economic prosperity board,
(j) a combined authority,
(k) a fire and rescue authority in England constituted by a scheme under
section 2 of the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 or a scheme to which
section 4 of that Act applies,
(l) a National Park Authority for a National Park in England,
(m) the Broads Authority,
(n) the Council of the Isles of Scilly,
(o) a parish council, and
(p) a parish meeting.

(7) In its application to subsection (1), subsection (6) is to be read as if it included a
reference to an executive of an authority within paragraph (a), (b) or (c) of that

(8) In its application to subsection (3), subsection (6) is to be read as if the reference
in paragraph (d) to the London Assembly were to the Greater London Authority.

(9) References in this section to a committee or sub-committee of a body include any
committee or sub-committee of that body to which Part 5A of the Local
Government Act 1972 applies or is treated as applying.

(10) References in this section to Part 5A of the Local Government Act 1972 include
a reference to that Part as it applies to the London Assembly by virtue of section
58 of the Greater London Authority Act 1999.

(11) In paragraph 4(2) of Schedule 12 to the Local Government Act 1972 (notice of
meeting of principal council), for “Three clear days” substitute “Five clear


(original source here)

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Budget cuts - The list

Update 30th October:
The council has finally published a report on the seminar and the full list of proposed cuts, it can be found on their website. I have updated my list below, unfortunately it doesn't get any better.

The puzzling fact that no media organisations have reported the details of the cuts proposed at the budget 'seminar' is explained by this update on Cneifiwr's blog (my underlining);

A condition of attendance was that journalists were not allowed to take notes, but they were encouraged to participate in the discussions about where to wield the axe.

This runs completely counter to some of the most fundamental rules of journalistic ethics. Journalists are supposed to be objective observers, not participants, for a start. Several organisations which were invited decided to decline precisely because they were concerned that the set-up would compromise their integrity and leave them with very little to report at the end of it.

This is outrageous.


Details are beginning to emerge of some the 52 areas of council services facing potential cuts, as discussed at Y Ffwrnes Theatre on Monday. The list is not exhaustive but gives a rough idea where the cuts are heading, and where they're not heading for that matter. Where known, the approximate 'potential savings' are also included.

The council has already announced a programme to sell off/transfer parks and playing fields, these haven't been identified as yet, but expressions of interest have been invited for 'investment' in Pembrey County Park.

The projected council tax rises for the next three years are 4%, 4% and 3% with £1m being taken from reserves next year. With areas such as education and loan repayments fixed, an overall cut of 19% will be called on across other departments.
Public transport support – removal of discounts.....£11,000

Reduce rural bus subsidies.....£100,000

Remove subsidies to paid-for school transport.....£85,000

Stop councillor led school transport appeal committee.....£30,000

Cut all over 16 school/college transport (6th Form)                            
Home to school transport...................£30,000
Home to college transport..................£477,000
Transport to secondary schools..........£174,000
Transport to secondary schools, £50 administration charge           

Denominational schools to lose free transport

Increase fees for closing roads for utility work

Off street car parking – 20p increase everywhere....£105,000

Charging for disabled parking in car parks.....£109,000

Car park charging after 6.00pm...............£55,000

On street enforcement of evening parking 6-9pm....£16,000

Charge all council staff for workplace parking £10 per month.....£190,000

Nant y Ci park and ride , double fees to £2......£63,000

To stop paying school crossing patrols [schools to pay or service lost]......£211,000

Cut business support functions.......£85,000

Cut trade union facilitation time with no full time posts supported 

Cut Welsh language support, mainly Mentrau Iaith........£60,000

Catering services in schools – Outsource or cut staff
                                              Reduce subsidies and/or increase prices....£1,450,000

Democratic process – Reduce scrutiny, especially of Executive Board

Sustainable development , reduce budget.......£15,000

Community Safety - remove action group......£15,000

CCTV - reduce monitoring......£30,000

Communications – reduce Carmarthenshire News to quarterly

Reduce inclusion services and statementing.......£300,000

Cut part-time places at school for 3 yr olds.......£80,000

Reduce youth services for 11-25 yr olds especially part-time staff

Cut development officer for after school clubs.....£33,000

Reduce out of county placements for complex needs clients.......£250,000

Cut mobile libraries......£141,000

Cut leisure centre use by schools......£525,000

Reduce Trading Standards........£24,000

Cut welfare rights support........£97,000

Close St Paul's care home, also Glan Morlais and Tegfan.......£1,700,000           

Some savings to be made through ”provision of extra care”

Local Authority homecare – explore option of transferring all LA staff 
to private sector or “arms length” company

'Support' services........................£200.000

Local authority Day services..............£175,000

Day centres, to close a third through 'rationalisation'.....£700,000

Coleshill -transfer to social enterprise or Local Authority trading company.......£100,000

Learning disabilities – services at Caemaen, Carmarthen,Ammanford and Maes Lliedi
privatised or to use third sector...........£178,000

Social services – to charge for all non residential services             

Highway maintenance – large reduction........£3,236,000

Highways lighting – reduce service levels...........£606,000

Flood defences and land drainage – reduce service........£123,000

Bridge and culvert maintenance – reduce service                               
(current backlog is £12,000,000 worth of work already)............£267,000

Remedial earthworks cutback...........£750,000

Stop some technical services e.g. scrim tests........£82,000

Cleansing services..............£777,000

Reduce environmental enforcement a small amount eg dog fouling......£19,000

Any comments, further details and/or corrections will be gratefully received

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Unlawful payments - Cllr Madge rules out suspension of Chief Executive..

Further to my most recent post on the subject, Unlawful payments, the story so far, the South Wales Guardian has made some enquiries;

Kevin Madge rules out suspending chief executive Mark James
Wednesday 23rd October 2013 
THE leader of Carmarthenshire County Council says there are no moves to suspend chief executive Mark James while claims of unlawful transactions are investigated. 
In Pembrokeshire, where chief executive Bryn Parry-Jones faces questions over pension payments Labour councillors have called for his suspension. 
But Cllr Kevin Madge (Lab) has ruled out such a move in Carmarthenshire, insisting the authority is satisfied two transactions questioned by the Wales Audit Office were lawful. 
The matters under scrutiny are the granting of a £23,217 indemnity to pay for Mr James’ legal costs in his libel case and counter claim against Towy Valley blogger Jacqui Thompson, plus remuneration totalling £16,353 paid in lieu of pension contributions.
(Link here)
It remains to be seen whether other councillors take a differing view to Mr Madge and exactly who, or what, constitutes 'the authority'. I know for a fact that not all 74 councillors think these payments were lawful.

Earlier this month the Wales Audit Office said;
“If the council continues to oppose his view he will also have to consider whether to apply to the courts for a declaration that an item of account is unlawful.”

Today's news suggests that the stand-off is not only likely to continue, but looks set to escalate.

Update 24th Oct;
Pembrokeshire Cllr Jacob Williams reports that the signatories to the call for an Extraordinary Council meeting have deferred their request until the appointed auditor, Anthony Barrett, publishes his Public Interest Report into the pension affair, which will apparently be next month.

We can assume that Carmarthenshire's report will be published at the same time and will cover the pension and the libel indemnity.

The problem the councillors have, in both counties, is they have not been allowed to see the legal advice jointly commissioned to defend the two chief executives. Who has determined that the information is legally privileged is not known, but it leaves elected members who wish to question this sorry affair with one hand tied behind their back.
Neither is it known who exactly has seen the advice but clearly it includes not only the senior officers involved but the executive Members who rubber-stamped the decisions in the first place.

Budget cuts meeting - 'a tragedy for democracy'

As the picture below illustrates, the budget cuts meeting held at Ffwrnes Theatre on Monday could probably have been held in Caebrwyn's shed for a quarter of the price.
Unison staged a protest outside the building and the Plaid group boycotted the event, choosing to send observers instead.

Cneifiwr reports on the 'Ffwrnes Farce' and includes a revealing statement from Plaid councillor Alun Lenny, which I have shamelessly copied below;

"It was very appropriate that such a farce was held at the Ffwrnes Theatre. Unfortunately, it was also a tragedy for democracy and for the people of Carmarthenshire.

I was met with open hostility by certain Labour and Independent councillors on my table. Meryl Gravell tried to get me ejected from the meeting for refusing to take part in the discussion. I told her I'd only be doing what most Independent members do in council meetings... 

During a heated exchange, advice was taken from the Monitoring Officer and Chris Burns. I told them I wouldn't be dictated to, had a perfect right to be there and stayed in my seat. 

We'd been informed by the council that “As it is a seminar, it is of course not a decision making meeting.” 

Yet, during the next three hours the other councillors on my table voted, by show of hands, for all but one of the 52 proposed cut-backs to go out to public consultation. 

The same process happened on the other tables, with non-elected business people and members of the press also taking part. 

Never, in over 30 in my previous career as a journalist, have I witnessed such a travesty of the democratic process. 

Quite apart from the nature of the meeting itself, councillors were presented with a massive tranche of cut-back proposals by council officers and given just three hours to discuss and vote on the proposals. Quite incredible and totally unacceptable. 

The people of Carmarthenshire have reason to be truly alarmed and angered that the process of cutting tens of millions of pounds from public spending should have started in such a cavalier manner."

(Update 9.47am - the South Wales Guardian has also published Cllr Lenny's statement)

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Stradey call-in....called-in

Things must have got a little awkward the other week between the Council and the Welsh Government when Carl Sargeant (Minister for Planning) decided to call-in the Stradey homes development application.

Although it related to an application to extend the time limit of the outline planning, it seems the Minister is looking at the principle of the development. Taylor Wimpey had already started the work, with the blessing of Carmarthenshire's planners, even though flood alleviation measures had not been carried out, despite this particular planning condition being a requirement before the development was to start.

The minister noted that the flood maps had changed since the original approval and the site was now largely on a flood plain and surrounding properties to this artificially elevated development were now at recognised risk from flooding.  The Welsh Government had also issued a 'stop notice' in November 2012 to prevent the council from issuing a decision on the extension application whilst the call-in request was being decided. This was ignored.

Carmarthenshire Council had argued that commencement was lawful under the 'reserved matters' (detailed) planning permission, Mr Sargeant disagreed;

"In my view there is insufficient information in this respect [flood risk] to show that all the relevant policy considerations have been fully addressed by Carmarthenshire County council's Planning Committee in resolving to grant planning permission...I have concluded therefore that the planning application appears to conflict with national planning policies relating to development and flooding and that it raises issues of more than local importance"

This has been a lengthy saga, inextricably linked with the Scarlet's move to Parc Y Scarlets. The development, of 355 homes contains no affordable dwellings - the contribution to the stadium was considered sufficient despite section 106 agreements supposedly limited to the immediate area where the development takes place.

As you may imagine the council have pulled out all the stops to ensure the development takes place whether or not it has a detrimental effect on local residents, many of whom have fought tooth and nail to ensure that both the development and the planning process has been appropriate. As usual, they have been branded as a minority of troublemakers by the council and been a thorn in the side of the smooth relationship between County Hall, the Scarlets and Taylor Wimpey.
It seems though that the Welsh Government are erring on the side of caution and agree with the residents that they are at risk.

The details are complex but the upshot of it all is that the council's own interests, and the interests of various officers and Members over the years, Scarlets season ticket holders, shareholders and assorted invitations to various rugby events have shown that, in this particular case, the whole business should probably have been determined and handled by an independent authority.

(numerous previous posts, including here, which is directly relevant to the call-in)

Update; Cneifiwr has posted further information here .

Update; I understand that the council's head of planning remains of the view that despite this call-in, there is nothing stopping Taylor Wimpey from continuing to progress with the development based on earlier applications, including, without doubt, the council themselves.

The Minister has now called in two planning applications due to flooding concerns, both involving the council as an interested party, the Grillo site and Stradey.

With flood alerts along the River Towy in Llandeilo in force over the past couple of days, the Minister needs to have another look at the council's decision to site the new superschool on the floodplains of Ffairfach, 

Monday, 21 October 2013

Online interests

I noticed today, via Twitter, that Carmarthenshire Council is not the only council who refuses to publish, online, the Register of Member's Interests, gifts, hospitality etc. South Tyneside Council in England published a very late (18 months late) response to a request for a copy of the register and told the requestor they'd have to view it in situ in the council offices.

Many council's routinely publish this information, Swansea and Pembrokeshire do, and, as we know, it all help to make local authorities that little bit more transparent. You may remember I made the same request (to Carms, not South Tyneside) and myself and an assistant had to spend a very uncomfortable hour or two in a very small room under the very vigilant eye of the Head of Democratic Services (See Sacred Parchments December 2011).

Given that each councillor has their own web page giving ward/contact details etc (and a handful even produce an annual report) I thought the ongoing omission of their declarable interests/gifts was just an oversight, but I was wrong.

Six months ago I made a request for the minutes of the Business Management Group meetings.
The group, made up of party leaders and senior officers makes recommendations to the Executive Board. The response finally arrived last Friday (exceeding the 20 day limit by five months) and you can view the minutes here. The group seems to meet on a bit of an ad hoc basis, and mainly when the Head of Legal/Chief Executive need to make some 'alterations' to the constitution. The BMG recommendations have never known to be rejected by the Executive Board..

I can only imagine that the extraordinary length of time it took to respond was because those who attend see it as something of an informal talking shop. Unfortunately unaffiliated councillors are excluded from the group whereas the leader of the independent group is not. Bizarre.

Anyway, back to the Register, and the BMG minutes show us that the group decided to specifically exclude this information from online records in April 2011.  Since then, the Welsh Government as issued guidance requiring councils to publish the information online and this guidance has been, er, 'noted' by the group.

Of course, the whole issue of declaring interests is a thorny issue at the moment, for senior officers anyway and as for official Guidance, Carmarthenshire Council has form for ignoring it; even official 'Orders', and even when it has adopted it itself. (this is a 2006 report to council, see No. 3, subheading 'Defamation')

Update 28th October 2013;
Political Scrapbook (@psbook) have looked a little further into South Tyneside Council's antics over the Register of Member's Interests, gifts and Hospitality and discovered that they are breaking the law by not publishing the register on their website. The Localism Act stipulates;
(5) The monitoring officer of a relevant authority other than a parish council must secure—
(a) that a copy of the authority’s register is available for inspection at a place in the authority’s area at all reasonable hours, and
(b) that the register is published on the authority’s website

As I said above, in Carmarthenshire the BMG voted against online publication of the register in April 2011. In April 2013 the BMG minutes state that the group were advised by the acting head of law that "notification had been received from the Welsh Government on proposals to require County and County Borough Councils and Town and Community Councils in Wales to publish their Register of Members Interests online." 
This was "Noted" and "No Further Action Required"

Quite what became of these WG proposals is not known to date, suffice to say there is still no Register of Members' Interests, Gifts nor Hospitality published online in Carmarthenshire.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Unlawful payments, the story so far

To be honest, other than a lot of comment and speculation, no one, apart from the council officers involved, the Wales Audit Office (WAO) and a few executive Members, from both Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire, know any more than the contents of the appointed auditor's original reports to the respective committees.

The reports identified the pension arrangements, and in the case of Carmarthenshire, the additional issue of the libel indemnity, as being unlawful and relate to the chief executives of each county.

We also know that the circumstances around the meetings where these decisions were taken are also in question. Whether the beneficiaries of the payments were present; the absence of declarations of interest; the failure to advertise the agenda items, and their degree of involvement in the decision making process is clearly part of the WAO investigation.

Complaints were made in March of this year, eight months ago, concerning the meeting where the libel indemnity was granted. I understand that the complaints are still outstanding.

The stand-off continues. Neither authority will disclose the legal advice it has received which it commissioned jointly back in August clearly when the auditors' alarm bells rang; neither will they reveal earlier advice which may, or may not exist, concerning the payments themselves. Nor the ongoing cost of such advice, which is to directly defend the two executives involved.

Whilst the WAO is considering publishing a public interest report and continues to stress that will not rule out court action, the two authorities will hope all can be resolved before that becomes necessary and the whole episode can be quietly forgotten with budget cuts taking over public attention.

But major spending decisions cannot be taken whilst there is a nagging doubt that the authorities can't keep their own house in order. There are too many low paid council workers whose' jobs are now on the line looking at the top brass and wondering why stronger action is not being taken over these alleged payments which exceed their own annual salary.

In Carmarthenshire, there are a many wondering whether a few other financial arrangements would be worth a second look. To give just one example, the advance payments of Returning Officer fees paid before the local election last year. (see WAO called as AM and MP question council finances). Small businesses must be wondering why they are made to wait for payment for services and goods whilst this payment was made before the service was delivered.

We don't know whether the Welsh Government is going to step in and do something about the dire democratic state of affairs in Carmarthenshire as requested by Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM (see Another meeting, another travesty). Judging by the First Minister's comment that it was 'only three', implying that is was not worth worrying about, it seems unlikely.

As the speculation continues it is perhaps of note that both Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire are now mentioned in the same breath as Caerphilly. Although parallels are not being drawn at this stage, it is down to our elected members to demand some answers, they must assert their right and their role to scrutinize executive decisions on behalf of the taxpayer. How far, exactly, the term 'unlawful' translates to 'illegal' needs to be established.

In Pembrokeshire, questions brought up at last week's council meeting remained unanswered as the 'discussions are ongoing...wouldn't be appropriate...' line was trotted out.

In Carmarthenshire councillors weren't even allowed to mention the issue.

They could bring the matters up at the November meeting by fielding some questions, use a notice of motion to demand a statement or even call for the suspension of those involved. But with the next meeting a few week's away and the obstacles to bringing such topics to full council well known, (one of which will be the agreement of those directly involved for the items to be placed on the agenda), perhaps more direct action is necessary.

Within the constitution of each council is the procedure to call for an extraordinary meeting. Pembrokeshire has already set the wheels in motion concerning their own pension scandal. The requisition for the meeting is;
 - that the pension arrangements are rescinded;
 - that the Welsh Government to appoints an independent panel to carry out a full inquiry
 - and to immediately suspend the Chief Executive pending the outcome of the above inquiry.

In Pembrokeshire a request can be made by five Members to the Chair of the Council. If the Chair refuses to agree to call a meeting within seven days, (and the Chair has already refused), a request can be made to the Head of Legal and Committee Services who, as I understand it, is obliged to agree to call the meeting within five days.

In Carmarthenshire the procedure is almost identical but it is not the head of legal nor the head of democratic services who must agree to call the meeting, it is the Chief Executive.

Neither is it certain what the procedure would be if the officer responsible for calling the meeting was directly involved in the subject matter on the agenda.

However, it remains open to Carmarthenshire councillors to give it a shot.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Questions and answers..

A meeting of Pembrokeshire Council was be held yesterday so I thought I'd have a quick look at the agenda, given the current spotlight on the 'pension arrangements' and joined-up legal approach to defending it by the two neighbouring chief executives.

What amazed me (so much so that I had to write this blogpost about it) was the marked difference in the contents of the agenda to anything I have ever seen in Carmarthenshire. It has questions! Questions from councillors to the Leader, which, I presume he is supposed to answer! Questions which, even if he doesn't answer to anyone's satisfaction, bring up controversial subjects in the public arena! Fancy that!

Here's a small selection;

Could the Leader provide Members with a brief summary of the Audit Office concerns in relation to the accounts signed off by the Corporate Governance Committee on Monday, 30 September 2013?

Could the Leader confirm if Council has had any further contact with the Wales Audit Office or their legal representatives since Corporate Governance on 30 September 2013 and if so, could he provide Members with a summary of any discussions or correspondence?

Could the Leader let us know whose idea it was for the Council to introduce the “pension arrangements” scheme which enables the highest paid Officers to receive their pension contributions as a cash sum, thereby avoiding tax liabilities?

Could the Leader tell us why no independent advice or legal opinion was sought back in 2011, prior to the tax-avoiding “pension arrangements” scheme being brought in?

During the Corporate Governance Committee on 30 September 2013, in response to a question about the propriety of holding public Council meetings in the Chief Executive’s Office, the Leader stated that “a number of Senior Staff Committee meetings have been held there over the years.” Could he provide a list of all previous meetings that have been held at this venue

Could the Leader confirm to Council who has been engaged to act on the Council’s behalf in relation to the Wales Audit Office report (specifically their concern in relations to changes to pension arrangements)?

Could he confirm the current bill (either invoiced or the anticipated amount based on time committed) for both Officers of the Authority and external agencies.  This should include all legal counsel?

The actual outcome of the meeting is covered here by Cllr Jacob Williams.

The question remains though as to why we never see such a raft of councillor questions in Carmarthenshire on a published agenda?

Both councils appear to have similar rules, in Pembrokeshire the question must be received by the Head of Legal, in Carmarthenshire it's the Chief Executive. I can't imagine there's any less interest in posing questions here than in Pembrokeshire next door. Is is a cultural difference? Do Carms councillors feel there's no point? Or are their questions rejected before they ever see the light of day? (answers on a postcard please)

As Cneifwr points out the democratic state of play in our own County Hall could become markedly worse (if that's possible) with the Chief Executive considering abandoning the current format and replacing it with a series of guest speaker seminars and powerpoint presentations. Apparently he is fed up with Chairing full council meetings where he has to deal with 'on camera' comments from discontented councillors and their attempts at bringing up embarrassing 'audit' issues and the like.

As Rhodri Glyn Thomas said recently he understands that, for starters, the Chief Executive has proposed changes which will prevent councillors from scrutinizing Executive Board decisions during meetings of full council.

As I have long predicted, the masterplan to do away with elected councillors altogether could be on the cards. To be honest, unless the Welsh Government step in with some urgency, Members will rapidly become superfluous to requirements anyway.


On the subject of questions, the First Minister Carwyn Jones was a guest on BBC Radio Wales Jason Mohammed show yesterday. He was taking calls from the public so I duly phoned up in the morning and lodged my question with the BBC. Much to my surprise I was phoned during the show to ask my question live on air. It was, as you may have guessed, to ask what the Welsh Government was doing to restore public faith and accountability in local authorities following the recent auditor's reports into Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire and Caerphilly.

I don't suppose you become First Minister of anything by actually answering questions or by providing a relevant comment but I was surprised by the complete non-response, I even thought he was answering a different question from another caller. But he wasn't.

Firstly he said something about it being 'only three' and there were lots of local authorities. After he'd dropped that bombshell I found it difficult to concentrate on the rest of his response.

He continued by mentioning that there was a forthcoming commission looking at reducing the number of Welsh Councils. Well that's all very well but it had nothing to do with what I'd said.

However, my attempt to come back at Mr Jones was cut short as they had lots of people waiting to ask things. Like myself, they were clearly wasting their time.


Lastly, the minutes from a recent meeting (Oct 7th) of the Policy and Resources Scrutiny have just been published. It provided members with an update on the webcast viewing figures to date (to that date, so doesn't include the October's meeting). 5,500 had watched either live or on archive the first four meetings, which is 5,500 more than would have seen them.

Don't forget the pilot kicked off with the ridiculous ritual of the Council AGM which must have put many would-be viewers off for life. However, officers seemed pleased to note that figures were declining and only 66 had watched the September meeting live. With pilot due to end in April or May next year it's extremely important that we don't lose this small window into Carmarthenshire Council. There is nothing more that some senior officers and members of the council would like to do than to pull the plug.

The committee also wondered what had become of the promised reports on 'councillors' emails' and officer participation in formulating press releases (after Kevin Madge was found to have breached the code over the Sainsbury's fiasco). Disappeared into the long grass of course. According to the minutes the 'Senior Consultant agreed to circulate an update to the committee before the next scrutiny committee'.  How informative.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Private Eye - Naughty Boyos

The last edition of Private Eye's Rotten Boroughs column featured the libel indemnity granted to the Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire Council which the appointed auditor has deemed unlawful - see Carmarthenshire Council, local coverage..and back in Private Eye.

This week's edition centres around the pension arrangements relating to the Chief Executives of Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire, also found to be unlawful.

Due to ongoing broadband problems I will have to upload an image of the article later on. So for now here's the text;

Naughty Boyos
Senior council officers in Wales have exploited an apparent loophole through which they can save tax on pension contributions from their employers. 
Bryn Parry-Jones, whose total 'package' as chief exec of Pembrokeshire county council is more than £200,000 a year, seized the chance to drop out of the Local Government Pension Scheme and take the county's annual £30,000+ contribution to his pension pot as a lump sum to be invested as he pleases - saving large amounts of tax following a change to the law in 2011. 
This arrangement was nodded through at a meeting of the council's 'senior staff committee' in September 2011, held in Mr Parry-Jones' office. Public and press were not present. The report recommending the dodge was authorised by the council's director of finance and head of human resources - both potential beneficiaries.. Parry-Jones, so far the only Pembrokeshire officer to have taken advantage of the scheme, was present throughout. Ain't life grand? 
Er, no, not necessarily. The Wales Audit Office (WAO) has refused to sign off Pembrokeshire's accounts pending further investigation. Last month the WAO branded a similar arrangement, whereby Carmarthenshire's chief exec Mark James, got a £16,353 lump sum in lieu of his 2012-13 pension payments. "Unlawful". Oh dear! (Private Eye 16th Oct)

What will happen next in Carmarthenshire regarding the two 'unlawful' payments remains to be seen. (Please see recent posts for more background on the Carmarthenshire situation )

Councillors in Pembrokeshire are, I believe, waiting for a date for an extraordinary meeting to call for the suspension of Mr Parry-Jones whilst the pension matter is investigated. Pembrokeshire councillors Jacob Williams and Mike Stoddart ( Old Grumpy of course) are both excellent sources to follow on the situation there.

As for this space.

Budget meeting - Cllr Caiach's letter

As Cneifiwr has already mentioned a 'Budget Seminar' for councillors and er, invited guests will be held at Y Ffwrnes theatre, Llanelli on the 21st October. Cneifiwr and I assume our invites must have got lost in the post.

Anyway, with the council leadership warning that we must 'brace ourselves' for the cuts to come, its clearly an important event. A couple of years ago, someone with a sense of irony decided it should be held at the Parc Y Scarlets stadium...clearly they haven't quite got the gall this year. After Monday's decision,  Scarlets Regional Ltd are not being asked to brace anything.

It will be held in a theatre though and one suspects that an event like this will have all the stage management of a production of the annual Christmas pantomime.

Cllr Caiach has voiced her concerns through the letters page of the South Wales Guardian;

"I am very concerned at the budget seminar planned for Carmarthenshire Councillors next Monday at Y Ffwrnes 9.15am - 1.15pm. 
It seems that the elected members will be given a list of possible cuts to be made after a pep talk on exactly how bad the economic situation is. In three hours those who wish to take part will have to decide on which of the cuts presented by officers they prefer.
I don't know what there cuts will be and how much we will be asked to cut. There does not appear to br any discussion on what budgets we should cut other than unseen, pre-prepared options. These are secret until the meeting and, in any case, if they were released now it would leave little time to consult our electorate. 
This is not fair or open, as Lesley Griffiths, the Minister for Local Government, says she expects of the council in a recent letter to me. 
For instance, if there was a move again to close the Llanelli care homes at St Pauls and Caemaen, most of the 74 councillors at the meeting will be from outside Llanelli and may decide to sacrifice Llanelli care homes for something in their wards. 
There will be no deep discussion on each topic, there is no time. The deliberation is in small, supervised groups, only a few minutes to dicusss anything. I suspect it will be manipulated by the fact that the only cuts to be discussed are already chosen even before the official announcement of the money coming to Carmarthenshire this year. 
With around £14m - £16m per year servicing the council's over quarter of a billion debt already, will there be even more borrowing to build new buildings while jobs are cut? I doubt this will be discussed as new buildings seem to take priority over people's jobs. We never seem to pass over a grant even if we have to borrow millions to match it.
In an area highly dependent on public sector employment, every job cut has a knock on effect on the economy. There are very few well paid private sector jobs available. 
Will we really discuss the jobs issue? I doubt it. Why the rush to discuss issues without informing the public of the pros and cons? The budget is not finalised until next year. 
I urge council officers to openly discuss the options before putting councillors 'on the spot'. Cancel the meeting and publish the proposals first. How can we represent people by going to a meeting where we do not know the true agenda and cannot consult our residents beforehand? 
This is so important it should not be hurried and it is a fact that it is not only county councillors and civil servants who have good ideas on how to manage our money." 
Cllr Caiach
Hengoed Ward

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Letters to the paper

One unintended consequence of the decision to webcast council meetings, something which probably shouldn't have come as a surprise, is a sense of personal embarrassment that others, aside from the intrepid few who would watch from the public gallery, can now see the farce in all its glory. Carmarthenshire is a beautiful county of course but dear me, what must the rest of the world be thinking (of course I'm sure the rest of the world must be watching) about the way it's run.

The end of the meeting last Wednesday again saw senior officers take control and it was obvious to everyone, apart from themselves it seemed, that this was a deliberate (and arguably incorrect interpretation of the constitution), reaction to silence debate on a serious issue.. Sadly, to hardened Carmarthenshire Council watchers this behaviour was nothing out of the ordinary.

The Chair said several times during the meeting about councillors behaving themselves, by which he meant, in front of the cameras. The 'good name' of the council must be preserved, rowdy banter and, dare I use that word, 'robust' debate witnessed in parliament had no place in the Chamber of Carmarthenshire Council...I beg your pardon? Do these people not realise that it is exactly what people want to see? And as for its 'good name', it's a bit late for that isn't it?

A hardy few councillors who don't live in cloud cuckoo land, most notably, Sian Caiach who's persistence to raise numerous issues in the correct forum, the council chamber, has earned her the barely concealed contempt from senior officers. Cllr Darren Price is heading the same way.

The recent 'unlawful' payments scandal is the most recent example. Without the public seeing a strong challenge with those involved being publicly held to account the impression is one of cover-up and secrecy. How healthier it would have been to have brought this out into the open on Wednesday, instead of course, even the reason why Cllr Price's wanted Standing Orders suspended was silenced.

One thing is certain, these two issues are not going to go away.

Letters to the paper are traditionally a good measure of public opinion on topical issues and show the powers that be the way the wind is blowing. Social media is another of course. There are precious few letters critical of the local authority in the local papers these days, apart from, it goes without saying, in the South Wales Guardian. Maybe the other papers don't receive any...I couldn't say.

These letters do not appear online so, in the interest of informing those in power of the views of the letter writing public, here are three letters from last week's edition;


The revelations in the SW Guardian (Oct 2nd) about the Mark James pension scandal lead us to wonder who in the council and executive board is responsible for presiding over the expenditure of £40,000 in pension contributions and legal costs for Mr James' libel case?

The Wales Audit Office has claimed these two issues are unlawful. If these two actions do prove to be unlawful will those responsible be held to account?

Non-executive board county councillors are quite right to highlight this state of affairs. Currently only executive board members have the final say. Perhaps it is time we reviewed our system of local government?

Wouldn't it be better to have all county councillors able to vote and decide on all issues, as was once the case?

At a time of extreme austerity, when the council is closing schools and community centres and cutting services, we are saddened, disgusted and angry that our hard earned money is possibly being spent illegally to the detriment of the public good.

P & B Gill, Carmarthenshire.


I am stunned at reading the front page of this week's SW Guardian (Oct 2nd) regarding the alleged use of over £20,000 of public money being used to pay for a private libel case.

Mr Mark James, Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council, is a public servant and should be prepared to accept criticism (and the compliments) for the role he has taken.

Libel actions are taken against people, not organisations. If he feels that Jacqui Thompson's allegations against him warranted a libel claim then that is a matter for him personally - not the local authority.

Most of us as executives  take out 'officers and professional indemnity' on a personal basis to protect us in such matters. The audit office should rule that it is repaid.

P Morgan, Cross Hands.


Three cheers for Cllr Bill Thomas for his remarks concerning the local authority's allegedly unlawful transactions involving Chief Executive Mark James (SWG October 2nd). We all owe him our debt because I and many others are afraid to speak out against the council in case we are taken to court and sued for libel - whatever happened to free speech and democracy?

The public are not fools - we haven't forgotten the council's decision to allow the Betws wind farm to go ahead, the car park charges it brought in, Wilkinson's and so on.

I haven't got any money so it's no good taking me to court. I would rather go to prison or join planning protestor Iori Jones up on the roof in Llandeilo or outside the Welsh Assembly in Cardiff.

Why oh why don't they listen to public opinion? They are always riding roughshod over peoples wishes. God bless the SW Guardian for standing up for free speech - I think it's time for a few top people to fall on their swords.

J Owen, Pantyffynnon

The Carmarthenshire Cash Cow

Further to my earlier post 'The stadium again...that sinking feeling' it should come as no surprise that the Executive Board approved the continuing bail out of the stadium and the club. Despite the dire budget cuts on the near horizon, which will include the sell off of parks and other sports facilities, Meryl Gravell even finds it appropriate to gush;  'I am so proud that as a council we have been there to support the Scarlets'. Indeed they have. I have only observed one or two Executive Board meetings and each time I felt like an unwelcome intruder at a mutual back-slapping convention. I can't begin to imagine the jolly atmosphere on Monday as Scarlets Regional Ltd joined in.

The Executive Board line-up may have altered slightly after the 2012 election but it's still the carefully selected band of loyal followers which ensure the officer-led regime slips seamlessly on.

To ensure continuing survival, every tin-pot dictatorship needs two things, control of the press and an unquestioning band of disciples. The first is achieved by developing a ministry of propaganda which works on the principle that if you tell the masses often enough that black is in fact white, or 'unlawful' is actually 'lawful', then they will believe it. Extending the 'influence' to external news agencies captures the wider public and any dissenting voices are ostracised through smear, the threat of financial ruin, or by being prevented from accessing information. And in some cases snooped on. Every dictatorship must have it's Intelligence Unit.

The unswerving loyalty of the camp followers is the second essential ingredient.They are not chosen for their outstanding intelligence nor their ability to think for themselves. Their role is not just to provide a source of endless flattery for the regime but is the cash cow of the dictatorship, spilling out money to fund pet projects; wider financial wisdom is secondary when it comes to shiny new things; they look good, they sound good, who cares if the benefits are reaped by giant corporations or fundamental evangelicals for instance, instead of the local population. And sometimes it's not only pet projects which benefit, but the pets as well.

Occasionally a decision or two has to go to the assorted ranks of the 'democratic' arm of the regime. This can be slightly tricky and is where the possibility of defeat can loom large. The regime has several options open to minimise the risk. It can ensure only the most loyal, proven over years of ingratiating servitude, can enjoy positions of power, with the temptations of lucrative allowances easing the passage up the ranks. Another way is to ensure that any opposition or dissent is effectively silenced. A powerful dictatorship has a sound knowledge of the rules and it's many interpretations, and must be constantly vigilant to any necessary alterations; rewriting the rule book is essential to its continuing survival....

The most dangerous dictatorship is one which is not just self serving but one which comes to believe in its own spin. This stage in governance is best illustrated by that age old tale, The Emperor's New Clothes.....

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Defending the indefensible

Council leader Kevin Madge has reacted to Rhodri Glyn Thomas's plea for the Welsh Government to place in Carmarthenshire Council in 'special measures' with a statement to the press seemingly incredulous that anyone thinks there's a problem with openness and transparency at the best council in Wales. Well, possibly not from where you're sitting Kev.

I am at a loss at where to begin on this deeply flawed view but perhaps, to keep this brief, I'll stick to Motions at meetings, as it was Wednesday's meeting which proved to be the final straw. Yes, he's right, councillors can bring issues to full council - as long as they now have seven seconders and it gets through the Chief Executive's office. ('Public question time' is completely unheard of by the way).

The topic of 'unlawful' payments, namely the pension scandal and the libel indemnity, was always going to be a sticky one to get on the agenda. Readers may remember late last year when the council pulled advertising from the South Wales Guardian after a mildly critical story, the evidence being an email leaked from the press office. 

The Plaid group put forward a Motion that the 'council respect the freedom of the local press'. Understandably they thought this scandal should be discussed in the Chamber. No chance. The Chief Executive, 'in consultation with the Chair' decided it was only worthy of private discussion between three senior council officers including the council's press manager, Debbie Williams (author of said email) and, yes, Cllr Pam Palmer.

So what about the extremely serious allegations of 'unlawful payments', will this be discussed at next month's meeting?
Cllr Madge hopes "that the difference of legal opinion might be resolved" by then, which is somewhat opposed to the Wales Audit Office view that; 
"If the council continues to oppose his [the appointed auditor] view he will also have to consider whether to apply to the courts for a declaration that an item of account is unlawful."
There's a long time between now and next month. Vague discussions and reports are promised for sometime next week, next month, whenever... and don't forget Kevin Madge himself was present at the two meetings where these questionable decisions were made, and the beneficiary was present at least one of them.
If I were cynical I'd say there was some serious stalling going on.

I suppose those involved in the 'unlawful' expenditure should count themselves lucky they hadn't done the evil deed of trying to film a council meeting; two squad cars and four police officers would have turned up, they would have been arrested, handcuffed and locked up...all within twenty minutes....

As you may be aware, Barnet blogger, the superb Mrs Angry has been following the goings on in Carmarthenshire and has updated her recent post; Daft Arrest: Welsh Assembly member calls for council to be put in special measures ... 

Friday, 11 October 2013

The Stadium again - and that sinking feeling

With £31m of savings to be found over the next three years, '100s' of job losses, community assets such as parks, playgrounds and playing fields in the immediate firing line and charges for sport activities rocketing, it looks like the council's commitment to one particular sporting venture, the Parc y Scarlets stadium, will continue to find favour.

Monday's Executive Board meeting features the proposed 'asset transfer' of public amenities as well as the increased charges. Alongside these Items is the long expected 'Presentation from Scarlets Regional Ltd'. It was expected to be presented to full council and in front of the cameras, but I imagine the Executive Board and raft of officers will prove to be a much more agreeable audience. It will probably eventually go to full council but we all know what happens there
The three years is up since the council waived the 'sinking fund' payments and slashed the interest on the £2.6m loan, then, like now, it was just before the council budget. The recommendations within the council officer's report are that this situation will continue, more or less unchanged, for the foreseeable future.

The interest on the loan will be made variable but still at a very reduced rate; contributions by the club to the sinking (maintenance) fund will be set at an insufficiently very low rate of £10,000 per annum; and the threshold of income before the club has to pay rent to the council has been reduced giving a 'potential' for future income for the authority. It's not even clear that the council will bother them with the last point. Whoopee. In return the Scarlets will have to pose for a few pictures, to be arranged at their convenience.

Given that 'the financial plight of the club is well documented' it is highly unlikely any rent will be paid or that the financial situation will improve in the near future. Although the recent deal between the council and the club to sell of some land to Marstons, which supposedly resulted in a figure in the region of £400,000 for the club is not mentioned in the report. (Further details of this deal have been refused through Freedom of Information)

The council's Audit Committee Members expressed considerable doubt at its last meeting that the club would be able to return the lease to the council should it become insolvent, given that it has listed the stadium fixtures and fittings as its assets, and has no legal agreement that, if it does become legally insolvent, the 150 year ground lease, (for which the club pays nothing) returns to the council. The lease could be sold on by the liquidators with no control over this public asset.

It is perhaps worth noting that none of this discussion, which took place at the Audit Committee meeting on the 27th September appears in the minutes.

I understand that there is still no word on the legality of the Council investing so much in a private company and I also understand that the Information Commissioner is looking into their refusal to reveal the mysterious legal advice of why they are exempt from EU State Aid rules.

When the full council approved the original financial package back in 2007, the serious doubts and advice of the independent auditors was swept aside and the majority of councillors swallowed the very positive assurances from council officers and the club that the future was extremely rosy.The statement that "The council will have no ongoing liability for the running of the club in the stadium" was wildly inaccurate.

You may recall an earlier blog post of mine which shows how the council is supporting Scarlet's Regional Ltd in any way it can.

The upshot of this is that whilst the council consider slashing public sport amenities and jobs with one hand, it will continue to pour millions into the 'won't cost the taxpayer a penny' Stadium with the other. Every penny spent on the stadium is one less for frontline services.

Exactly how the taxpayers of Carmarthenshire became lumbered with this vanity project from the start is something else the Wales Audit Office should consider having a long look at.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Another meeting, another travesty - updated - AM calls for Welsh Government intervention

Further to yesterday's meeting and following on from my post below (and numerous other posts concerning the democratic deficit in Carmarthenshire), Rhodri Glyn Thomas, the Plaid Cymru Assembly Member has issued a statement asking the Welsh Minister to put the council in 'special measures'. I couldn't agree more:

Press Release 10th October 2013

Call for Welsh Government intervention in Council proceedings

Council should be placed in ‘special measures’, says AM

The Welsh Government Minister for Local Government has been asked to intervene in the way in which Carmarthenshire County Council undertakes its proceedings.

Noting what he considers to be a ‘democratic deficit’ in County Hall, Assembly Member Rhodri Glyn Thomas has called on the Welsh Government to examine the culture in Carmarthenshire Council and how  democratically elected councillors are prohibited from raising matters in meetings of the full council.

In this month’s meeting of the full council Plaid Cymru County Councillor for Gorslas ward, Darren Price, proposed to suspend the council’s standing orders to raise a matter.  Councillors were invited to vote but Councillor Price was not allowed to ‘make the case’ for his request.

Rhodri Glyn Thomas believes Councillors were not provided accurate information by the authority’s officers and proper processes were not followed as Councillors were told to vote without knowing what they were voting on.

Yesterday's episode in full council follows a series of instances where opposition councillors have been prohibited from raising matters in the Council.  Previous attempts to raise matters through the council’s  ‘any other business’ equivalent resulted in that agenda item being removed from all future meetings.

Leader of the Plaid Cymru Councillor Group on Carmarthenshire County Council, Peter Hughes Griffiths said it is almost impossible for opposition councillors to have any input into decision making.  He also expressed his disappointment that the Leader of the authority, Labour’s Kevin Madge, rejected his request for a statement regarding the on-going legal row with the Wales Audit Office and its claims of “unlawful” payments made on behalf of the Chief Executive, Mark James.

In his letter to the Local Government Minister, AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas has exposed that the Chief Executive has recently proposed changing the format for full council meetings which will remove entirely any opportunity for councillors to scrutinise Executive Board decisions in full council meetings.  The Plaid Cymru AM requested the Minister considered placing Carmarthenshire Council into ‘special measures’ until faith in the democratic process had been restored.

Assembly Member for Carmarthen East & Dinefwr Rhodri Glyn Thomas said:

“In the almost fifteen years I have represented Carmarthenshire in the National Assembly I have never known public confidence in the County Council to be so low.

“There appears to be a culture in which decisions are made behind closed doors; with very little opportunity for opposition councillors to challenge or discuss decisions which have been made.  The recent revelation surrounding the Chief Executive’s new pension arrangement is a case in point.

“The Council’s constitution has been manipulated over a number of years to concentrate power in the hands of a select group of officers and executive board members.  Even when councillors follow the letter of that constitution to raise matters of concern, they immediately find themselves hitting an ‘officer road block’.  

“When Councillor Darren Price requested the suspension of standing orders at this week’s full council meeting, I am at a loss to explain why officers advised councillors to vote on the request without knowing what issue they were voting on.

“There is without doubt a democrat deficit in Carmarthenshire.  It’s my view that senior officers are working on behalf of the Labour and Independent coalition instead of the council as a whole.  The way in which some senior officers provide advice to councillors can only be likened to an officer operating a ‘veto’ on council business.  As an elected representative it is my duty to raise these matters with government Ministers.

“I have called on the Welsh government to intervene in the way the County Council conducts its affairs.  The people of Carmarthenshire deserve better than the way in which the current administration operates.”

Leader of the Plaid Cymru Councillor Group Peter Hughes Griffiths added:

“The Council is embroiled in a legal battle with the Wales Audit Office over two unlawful payments of around £40,000 involving the Chief Executive.

“But despite my request, it is a deep disappointment that the Labour Leader of the Council has refused to make a statement to the council and explain to us, as elected representatives of Carmarthenshire communities, exactly what the auditor has said and how this impacts on the council."


Another update; Mrs Angry, author of @BrokenBarnet has written on the latest developments here; Daft Arrest: Welsh Assembly member calls for council to be put in special measures ...

..and the South Wales Guardian; Public faith in Carmarthenshire council at an all-time low – Rhodri

(Meeting now on archive, see update below)

You would think, in the real world, that something of the seriousness of recent grave allegations of unlawful payments would be discussed by your elected representatives in the council chamber. It wasn't.

As if to pre-empt any possible mention of the libel indemnity or the pension payments, for the first time, the script which warns those present that the meeting was being live streamed included a statement, read by the Chief Executive, that the council had the right to stop the filming at any time.

Firstly, the Plaid Group's demand for a statement from Council leader Kevin Madge was rejected in an email to the Plaid Leader yesterday. It's not surprising that Cllr Madge is reluctant to say anything as he was on the Executive Board when the two payments in question were rubber stamped. However I suspect he has little say as to what is said in public over all this. None at all probably.

The South Wales Guardian reports on the rejection and provides us with the text of the email, I would put my pocket money on it that it was not written by Cllr Madge. It also gives the impression that the WAO have been told to go away and come up with a different result. Typical council spin and not the reality of the position;

"You will appreciate that this is fundamentally an issue of interpretation of the two seemingly conflicting legal opinions," he added. "I understand that the Wales Audit Office have been looking further into their own advice and there is to be a meeting next week between the council and the WAO to try to understand and resolve the differing legal points of view.
"In this context I do not think it would be advisable for me to make a statement until I have received a report of this forthcoming meeting.
I also do not think that this matter would qualify as ‘urgent’ business since there is no action or decision to be taken at this time and there has been no recent development since it was considered by the Audit Committee.
"Once we have had the scheduled meeting with the Wales Audit Office we will know more as to how the matters can be resolved and I will ensure that members are kept informed."

So there was no statement at the meeting. And therefore no discussion.

The meeting progressed and the Plaid Motion for a vote of no confidence in Labour Health Minister Mark Drakeford over the loss of the A & E Department in Llanelli was duly and predictably watered down by an amendment from the Labour group.

The amendment removed the 'no confidence' part of the motion. The crucial part.

So eventually, despite numerous impassioned speeches, what was meant as a strong message to the Welsh Government on behalf of the people of Llanelli ended up more of a bland comment. The main worry of those who spoke against the motion, including the Executive Board Member for health, Cllr Jane Tremlett (Ind) was that a no confidence vote would damage the 'good name' of this council (yes really).

Towards the end of the meeting Cllr Darren Price (Plaid) mentioned a recommendation that the council should improve the level and scope of scrutiny that currently exists. He cited an example where he had asked for a report from officers detailing the amount of money spent on external consultants - that was a year and a half ago and he was still waiting...

The final attempt to bring (what I understand to be) the subject of the unlawful payments up for discussion was right at the end of the meeting. Cllr Darren Price requested that the Standing Orders be suspended for him to bring forward an urgent Motion.

Panic ensued, voices were raised and the acting Head of Law, Linda Rees Jones launched into the favourite excuse that things had to be on the agenda, the poor public had a right to know what was being discussed blah blah (they clearly didn't have that right when the two unlawful payments were decided).

A vote had to be then taken whether or not to suspend standing orders but Cllr Price, bizarrely, was not allowed to say what the item was about, or put his case forward.

This matter was not going to be mentioned whatsoever.

With the predictable support of the Labour/Ind coalition going to the ruling officers, the vote was lost.

The Chief Executive himself immediately announced the lost vote and closed the meeting. Closing the meeting is something the Chair is supposed to do, which he did, after Mr James.

To be fair, Cllr Price tried very hard in the face of extreme hostility from the podium. Cllr Caiach's efforts to support Cllr Price were similarly, and unceremoniously, shot down in flames.

Update 10th October; The meeting is now archived and can be found here. Scroll down and click on the time 02:39:48 to see Cllr Price's attempt to get Standing Orders suspended to bring forward a motion on the 'unlawful' payments.

(For background, please see recent posts)

Storm clouds gathering on Jail Hill

Monday, 7 October 2013

Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire and Caerphilly - updates

The Llanelli Star has a brief update this evening concerning the continuing 'stand off' between Carmarthenshire Council and the Wales Audit Office over the pension scandal and the libel indemnity. Here's an extract;

The Wales Audit Office could go to the courts over the legality of a Carmarthenshire Council payment involving pension contributions and a pledge to pay court costs of a libel case against a blogger.

As a stand-off continues between the audit office and council, a spokeswoman for the Wales Audit Office said further information relating to the issues could be made public by the appointed auditor.

She said: “He is considering issuing public interest reports to provide the public with detail on the matters of concern.

“This would also give the council an opportunity to respond formally and publicly to his concerns.

 “If the council continues to oppose his view he will also have to consider whether to apply to the courts for a declaration that an item of account is unlawful.”

Neither steps are definite at this stage according to the audit office.

Wales Audit Office says an indemnity granted to council chief executive Mark James for libel action against blogger Jacqui Thompson was unlawful.

As the WAO says, nothing is definite at this stage but it reads to me like the appointed auditor is sticking to his guns.
As news slowly emerges all eyes will be on Wednesday's full council meeting to see if the unlawful payments are allowed given any sort of airing. Failing any 'technical issues', the meeting is scheduled to start at 10am (link here)

As Cneifiwr points out today there should be plenty to occupy the WAO mini-digger and we can be certain there are more bodies buried on Jail Hill.
I'm sure regular readers of both blogs will heartily agree.

8th October;
On Twitter;
Jonathan Edwards MP; ‏@JonathanPlaid @Plaid_Cymru Cllrs on Carms right to demand statement from CCC Leader in tomorrow's full council in relation to 'unlawful' payments

The South Wales Guardian has updated it's website with Plaid's demand for a statement from Kevin Madge at tomorrow's meeting. Leader of the Plaid group Peter Hughes Griffiths said "Given the potentially grave nature of these allegations it is obviously vital that our members are told just what exactly is going on"

Given that Cllr Griffiths recognises the 'potentially grave nature of these allegations' I would have thought that the Plaid group would have followed Pembrokeshire's lead and called for the suspension of those involved whilst the matters are independently investigated.
If Kevin Madge does give a statement it will be nothing more than a rehash of last week's council's press release though it could possibly, just possibly, open up something of a debate....


The latest news from Pembrokeshire where the Chief Executive, Bryn Parry Jones is also under fire over the (in this case, single) issue of the same tax dodge pension scandal as Carmarthenshire's CEO, is that the Chair of the Council has refused to call an extraordinary meeting. 

The Labour group leader, Cllr Paul Miller requested the meeting last week for a vote for the suspension of the Chief Executive but predicted at the time that the Independent Group (similar bunch to Pam Palmer's Indie group at County Hall) would try and stall it. The Chair, Cllr Arwyn Wiiliams is a member of the Independent Group.

The Pembrokeshire Herald has further details and, with a full council meeting listed for the 17th October states that;

'a  vote over the immediate suspension of the Chief Executive of Pembrokeshire County Council is still certain to take place'.

Update 8th October;
Pembrokeshire Councillor Jacob Williams provides further information;
We know that the pension arrangements in 2011 were exclusive to only Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire and, conveniently it seems, the defensive legal advice sought after the WAO raised the alarm in August 2013 was also a joint arrangement.
Cllr Williams has requested copies of the legal opinion for Members to study prior to a vote to suspend the Chief Executive.
Unsurprisingly this has been refused, partly on the grounds that the 'opinion' is also owned by Carmarthenshire who haven't given their permission and also on the grounds that it may prejudice any future court action between the two authorities and the WAO.


Meanwhile, the Western Mail reports on developments at Caerphilly Council today as the extent and details of the unlawful payments is revealed. The Chief Executive and deputy were arrested in July under suspicion of fraud and misconduct in public office as part of an ongoing investigation. The Council's accounts have just been published;

"and a Note to the Accounts states that "Certain officers, including the chief executive, who would have been – and were – beneficiaries of the decision were present throughout the meeting to approve the salary increases. No declarations of interest were made and these officers did not leave the room while the decision was made. In doing so, they participated in the decision-making process." 

The BBC has also covered the story.