Friday, 30 May 2014

Scrutiny ups and downs

A Wales Audit Office report published today has found that scrutiny of executive decision making in Wales is something of a mixed bag; inconsistent and patchy. Not just for members of the public who wish, for example, to scrutinise spending decisions (with all but two local authorities publishing any spending details at all, this is nigh on impossible in Wales), but for backbench councillors trying to hold the executive to account. Huw Vaughan Thomas, the Auditor General said that “Decisions need to be consistent, transparent and rigorous and greater recognition of the value of scrutiny is vital if councils are to see real benefits in securing value for money for the taxpayer.”

Also published today, by the Welsh Government, is the final version of the Wales-wide 'satisfaction' National Survey. It is quite comprehensive and detailed. For instance, we now know that a non-religious urban female feels 5% safer walking in the dark in their local area than a religious urban female. The report also repeats data which was published last year, including responses to the question 'did respondents feel  they could influence decisions affecting their local area?' For which Carmarthenshire Council scored the worst in Wales.

I'll not repeat Carmarthenshire's numerous shortcomings when it comes to scrutiny, for both the public and elected members, though, as per my previous post, keeping councillors properly and fully informed is supposed to form part of the forthcoming governance review. You may remember, for instance that the Policy & Resources scrutiny committee waited 18 months for a report on the press and media protocol, which eventually prompted an ongoing review.

Members of another scrutiny committee, were recently puzzled as to why a politically charged press release was included in the background papers for an 'update' item on cuts to public transport and bus services. The press release hadn't come from the council but it's origin was unknown and only contained the name of the author. Members queried  its origins and its inclusion, they were told it was written by;
'a prominent Welsh transport journalist who wrote for a number of newspapers and industry journals and that these comments did not reflect the view of the Council or the Authority’s officers. The Director of Technical Services assured the Committee that the press release had been included to highlight the excellent work being done by the Authority’s officers'

I don't think the Members were doubting the efforts of the authority's staff to maintain and subsidise services as best they can in the face of cuts; it was the inclusion of the article, simply because it said nice things about the council that was challenged, and therefore its purpose and relevance in the context of scrutiny. Imagine if articles from local bloggers were included for the purpose of giving a 'balanced view'? Good heavens.

As reported in the Carmarthen Journal, the council statement regarding increased and extended parking charges does little to inspire confidence that the public voice will be heard; "Traffic orders are in place for all the amendments to come into place as soon as the time for consideration of objections has passed" Objections are merely a formality, to be 'noted', and ignored.

Also on the subject of scrutiny is the matter of webcasting and it was a pity that the new Plaid group leader's recent call for public filming (recommended by a cross-party group of scrutiny councillors back in 2012) and the inclusion of scrutiny meetings in webcasting was met with a reluctant and mumbling 'promise' of a discussion by a distinctly unenthusiastic executive board. As he pointed out, this would go some way to meeting the auditor's calls, and Welsh Government drive, to improve public engagement in scrutiny, a requirement of the Local Government (Wales) Measure 2011

Lastly, some may say that blogs such as this and social media in general have their place in the scrutiny of our local authorities. Some may disagree of course. One tenacious local blog over in North Yorkshire, Real Whitby has been exposing wrong-doings relating to the county and borough council for some time.

Last year the borough council contacted the blog's Internet Service Provider in an attempt to have it shut down, without success, and this week's Private Eye reports on the latest attempt by the council to remove the thorn in it's side. Real Whitby carries the full article here. Pensioner and contributor, Nigel Ward was reported to the Department of Works and Pensions for earning money from his contributions to the blog. It turned out that the allegation had 'emanated' from the Town Hall.

The DWP investigator was entirely satisfied that Mr Ward hadn't been paid anything. The contributor has now written to the council's legal officer asking for an investigation into this attempt to smear him. As it is the same legal officer responsible for the 2013 baseless allegations to the ISP, I'm sure Mr Ward's complaint will be, erm, thoroughly investigated...

The inconsistent scrutiny of executive decisions is probably not so much a structural issue, but a cultural problem. The technology is now there to assist the process, widening the meaning and scope of scrutiny as never before, and as soon as the general default position changes from 'defensiveness' to 'openness', we may finally get somewhere.
And can I just add, whilst I'm on the subject of scrutiny, that proposals to charge for Freedom of Information requests would be a backward step and should be abandoned forthwith.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Terms of Reference - the governance review

Just in case you were wondering, which you probably weren't, I haven't gone away. Things seem to be unusually quiet in County Hall and of course there have been elections going on. 

Perhaps of more concern in Carmarthenshire, where there won't be another local election until 2017, are matters of governance. After all, no amount of gloss and rhetoric will cover rotten timber. At the recent council AGM Kevin Madge managed to keep references to the damning indictments from the Wales Audit Office to a minimum, and employed the usual 'drawing a line under it' and 'moving on' tactics, well used by politicians knee deep in manure.

He promised that 'all councillors' will be able to join in with the review, he might also like to invite the Carmarthenshire public to offer their suggestions too...

Next week's Executive Board meeting will travel, after the pre-meeting meeting, in convoy to the outback once again and grace the small market town of Llanybydder with it's presence. This is Kev's idea of democratic engagement where the local community can interact with the top brass, and officials can hear the grassroots grumblings of the hoi polloi. The 'community' will be booted out for an exempt discussion on Glyn Abbey Golf club and then the official convoy will travel back to the safety of County Hall, after lunch and expenses.

A far better idea would be to make the Executive responsive to local communities full stop; enable and encourage public questions, webcast their meetings, and make sure their decision making is lawful. With the last point in mind one item on the agenda concerns the first stage of the governance review heralded at the Extraordinary meeting on the 27th February, and, more to the point, an exercise insisted upon by the WAO.

The item seeks to determine the 'terms of reference' of the review and will have to be approved by full council.
The Welsh Local Government Association are assisting in establishing a 'team' which will comprise of a "politically balanced team of experts, led by a former Chief Executive from local government and potentially additional support from someone with an audit or regulatory background". Yes, an audit expert would be a good idea. As would the publication of their deliberations.

Up for review are;

"the effectiveness of current procedures or protocols such as notices of motion, urgent and exempt terms, scrutiny, declarations of interest and

"ensuring that reports fully set out legal, financial and equality implications of proposed policies and schemes

These two are a direct result of the unlawful payment scandals where both the pension payment and libel indemnity decisions were so deeply, and legally, flawed they necessitated a lengthy police investigation. As we know, 'current procedures' are far from 'effective' and, to give an example, it should never be the case that a senior officer sits in at any meeting where he stands to financially gain, personally, from a decision.

Also in the 'terms' (and this, as I have said, is not the only review underway. Three internal reviews are ongoing regarding the Press and Media Protocol, email tracking and planning enforcement), are 'transparency and accountability' to members who, so often, have been kept in the dark about decisions;

Transparency and accountability to members, including the role of scrutiny and the availability of information for members, including the recording, dissemination and communication of council decisions

Maybe it would be productive for the 'team' to take on an extra case study for their purposes? The car park deal between the Council and the Scarlets would give them plenty of scope....who knew there was a policy to pay off third party loans on behalf of private companies?

Anyway, tacked on to this review (the summarised report is here, no detailed report has been published..) is

"The role of Full Council, including consideration of the new Modular Constitution", "with a view to considering any changes needed to our own constitution"

Quite what the 'role of full council' part means I'm not sure. Hopefully executive proposals to turn the event into corporate power point presentations have now been abandoned.

Cneifiwr reflected on some of the more disturbing elements of the Wales wide 'new Modular Constitution' which is being considered across local authorities, including the rules for councillors asking questions; the questions must not be 'an expression of opinion' nor relate to 'questions of fact', which as Cneifiwr points out,  doesn't leave much and they might as well stay at home.

An early draft of this new constitution contained the clause;

["Filming and use of social media is permitted during meetings so long as there is no
disturbance to the conduct of the meeting.]

For some reason it was in heavy square brackets and it remains to be seen whether it survives into any final forms adopted by Welsh councils. It may have been abandoned already...

I suppose it's some consolation that the unlawful clause, unique to Carmarthenshire, and currently suspended from its constitution to instigate and fund defamation claims, does not appear in the draft constitution for Wales.

Lastly, for now, the usual regular update on the council's capital programme is also on the Executive Board agenda. It includes various current delays and/or extra costs. Within the list is a mysterious reference to the council's Eastgate development recently sold by Henry Davidson Developments to a large investment company. Apparently there is a delay due to "developer snaggings and requirements".

It doesn't state what is being delayed but apparently there's another £128k due to be spent there, and as for "developer snaggings"? Your guess is as good as mine.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

The May Meeting

Well,  back to the monthly routine of Carmarthenshire's full council meetings. There's two this month, with the thrills and spills of the AGM to look forward to next week..

I shall be fairly brief as of course the meeting will be available on archive soon (see below).

Our various chief officers rearranged themselves back in their own seats and proceedings began as usual with a prayer, it seemed slightly longer than normal..

Anyway, the meeting kicked off with a presentation from the Provost of the Carmarthen Campus about the relocation of S4C from Cardiff to Carmarthen. This is good news of course.

Next up was a relocation of an entirely different sort - the decision by the Mid and West Wales Fire Authority to move it's control centre from Carmarthen to Bridgend. Cllr Alun Lenny (Plaid) put forward a motion that council must strongly object to this and the objection received unanimous support. One argument put forward were the difficulties in relaying local knowledge to a distant call centre with potentially disastrous results.

It was interesting that one of the main issues was the complete lack of consultation by the Fire Service, even the firefighters themselves had no say in the matter. According to some councillors, meetings were held 'behind closed doors' and meeting documents not delivered in good time.

As it all sounded a bit familiar, comparisons were drawn to the fact that the council itself had come under fire over such things, so why should the Fire Service get away with it.

The feeling that the council had now learned its lesson was slightly spoilt further along into the meeting when it transpired that the council had been selling off bits of land without consultation with the local elected members.

Caebrwyn was particularly interested in the next item which was to recommend that the webcasting contract be extended for another three years.

Council leader Kevin Madge (Lab) spoke in favour of the recommendation, despite the fact that he'd 'felt the heat'. He also acknowledged that 'democracy was important' which was an encouraging remark...

Cllr Emlyn Dole (Plaid) said that the webcasting had 'opened the whole thing up' and it should be extended to Planning and Scrutiny meetings. Despite the assistant chief executive reminding the chamber of the extra cost, Cllr Madge agreed that the Executive board would look at the filming of planning meetings in the near future.

Personally I think it should be extended to Executive Board meetings as well.

Cllr Dole also brought up the fact that the issue of whether the public could film was also due for review today as the pilot had now finished and this 'review' had been agreed over a year ago.

Despite the fact that the public gallery was empty it didn't stop Cllr Madge glancing up when referring to opening cans of worms. Hmm. Cllr Pam Palmer (Ind) was concerned that people could edit footage and cast them in a bad light, not that she 'was making any allegations'. I should think not.
Cllr Giles Morgan (Ind), after saying hello to his mami and dadi also expressed concerns that people could try and make them look silly, or words to that effect.

They were reminded that any media, even the BBC, could be 'selective' and wouldn't show a whole meeting, merely 'soundbites' which could of course be taken out of context. Cllr Dai Jenkins (Plaid) felt strongly that the public should be allowed to film, it was an essential principle of democracy, accountability and transparency, and didn't cost anything.

It wasn't entirely clear whether the Executive Board were going to look at this further, I very much hope so. They seem to be unaware of the developing legislation over in England which will protect the democratic rights of the public to film....never mind the requirement over the border to publish all spending details over £500 and third party contract details. They're not members of the Eric Pickles fan club, it has to be said.

The impending closure of the council run adult Community Education Centres came up. Rumours that the centre in Llandeilo could close this summer were reinforced as it was clear that a new arrangement for the further education colleges to take over the courses didn't extend to taking over the centres.

The provision was non-statutory and with the already hard pressed town and community councils unlikely to afford to take over the centres the future seems bleak. With cuts to bus services as well, residents of north Carmarthenshire look like sinking further into rural isolation. Perhaps a better deal over the car park sale with the Scarlets might have helped keep them open for a while longer.

The final point I want to mention was brought up by Cllr Darren Price (Plaid) who welcomed to the current review into the Press and Media Protocol. I mentioned this recently and in Friday's post commented on the fact that the use of an anonymous council 'spokeswoman' to convey the apparent view of the entire council on contentious issues was wrong, Cllr Price echoed this view and said that this practice had to stop now.

Cllr Price also welcomed the review of the Email Policy with particular attention as to who could access emails, this, as we know, followed the 'snooping' episode concerning Cllr Caiach's emails.

Archived meeting here.


I am off to the Wales Blog Awards tonight as I'm a finalist in the 'Best Political Blog' category, I don't know how I'll get on, but as an event it's a good opportunity to promote and celebrate all things bloggy in Wales.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Court of Appeal - libel counterclaim appeal dismissed

Re; Jacqueline Thompson v Mark James [2014] EWCA Civ 600

The Court of Appeal handed down judgment today on my appeal hearing held on the 30th April. The appeal was dismissed.

I am now more than two and a half years down the line since the litigation began, I hope readers will realise that the reason I have continued to fight on, is to show my total determination to seek justice and clear my name.

This was the reason for bringing the claim in the first place back in 2011 and the subsequent attempts to overturn the judgement against me. It was, as I have said before, a miscarriage of justice which I cannot, and will not accept but will have to live with.

Judgements are an end result of lengthy and detailed documented arguments and, in the case of the trial and appeal hearing, detailed oral arguments, submissions and evidence. At some point I hope to publish further details and documents relating to the case.

If you wish to read it in full, the published appeal judgement can be found on the Bailii website here. The judgement may be of wider interest following the Wales Audit Office report on the libel indemnity, a point which was raised at the appeal hearing.

The three appeal judges have specified that they make no observations on the lawfulness of the council's 'libel cost amendment' and it's subsequent use (para 16 on) nor a ruling, they also refer to the 2006 Order prohibiting it.

The issue which was the subject of the appeal was one of 'meaning' and related to part of the counterclaim and whether or not my use of two words (which can be read in the judgement) were defamatory of Mr James or, as we included in our argument, legitimate comment referring to the council.

The two words referred solely to this specific clause in the constitution which I have referred to above and its unlawfulness should any officers of Carmarthenshire Council use the provision to bring claims for libel. I had a permanent clarification of this on the side bar of the blog.

The clause has since been suspended and the indemnity stopped.

I'll end with the final paragraph from the leader opinion in The Times, dated 21st February 2013 on the final day of the trial;

"..whatever the outcome of the case in the High Court, it should be clear that the council has in both instances acted arrogantly and defensively. It has wielded excessive official and financial power against a lone citizen and has thereby become a case study in how not to behave in an era of transparency and accountability"

..and it is somewhat ironic that I heard the following quote in the Council Chamber itself this morning when Members were discussing webcasting, 'The price of freedom is eternal vigilance'.

I will carry on.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Carmarthenshire council; 'caught taking from the poor and giving to the rich' - Cllr Caiach writes to the Western Mail

Good letter from Cllr Sian Caiach in today's Western Mail which I have copied below. The police investigation might be over but the fallout certainly isn't.

Cllr Caiach also reminds us of the latest scandal which saw County Hall quietly arrange for the Scarlets to pay off a third party loan. My complaint is currently in the hands of the Wales Audit Office.

As for the police investigation, I have now made a Freedom of Information request to Gloucestershire Constabulary for the details; (with thanks to the Dyfed Powys Police Commissioner's office for advice)

Don't forget there's a full council meeting tomorrow (webcast here) and it will be interesting to see whether the Plaid opposition follow the calls made by MP Jonathan Edwards last week for the unlawful payments to be paid back. This week's South Wales Guardian opinion piece also supports Mr Edwards view.

Here's Cllr Caiach's letter;
Taking from poor and giving to rich 
SIR – The police investigation into extra salary payments for two council chief executives to compensate them for changes to pension rules has been dropped. There was no criminal case to answer. 
Here in Carmarthenshire the Labour-led council was delighted to give an extra £16,000 a year to our well-paid chief executive, who already earns more than first minister Carwyn Jones. 
The decision was made by the executive board and not reported to ordinary councillors or the public in general. It was only when accounts showed a sudden unexplained increase in the CEO salary, found by a member of the public, and the Wales Audit Office investigated, that the sad story of the secret pay rise emerged. 
The executive board councillors in Carmarthenshire are the employers of the chief executive. Although the WAO judged the payment as unlawful, this council has denied that it could be, as any employer can reward an employee as much as they see fit. 
There are two very disturbing issues. The pay increase was hidden, presumably because an executive board cutting its own council staff did not wish to be seen giving a massive pay rise to its best paid officer just to protect his already generous pension. 
This is not the only payment hidden from the public recently, the same council hid a donation of almost £300,000 to cover a debt for the Scarlets Rugby club in the paperwork of a car park sale. Also, when the truth comes out, the Welsh Government is either unable or unwilling to stop these practices, even when condemned by their own Audit Office. 
As a county councillor, just like the public, I am being kept in the dark. I am not informed by the council leaders about incidents where public money is secretly given away. The payments may not be criminal, but are certainly not moral and the time, money and spin wasted to hide them is disgraceful. 
Who would have thought that in tranquil West Wales a Labour-led council has decided to adopt a policy of expanding the wealth gap? This supposed Labour administration cuts services to the vulnerable (blaming the evil Westminster Government), privatises our social care, sponsors our local rugby region and over rewards our highest paid employee. 
All funded by the public, but openness and transparency sadly lacking. In essence, local government caught taking from the poor and giving to the rich. 
Our chief executive, we've been told, could earn much more money in the private sector. Perhaps he should look into that? With re-organisation on the horizon, I'm sure we can find a cheaper option. 
Councillor Sian Caiach
People First /Gwerin Gyntaf, County Councillor for Hengoed Ward, Llanelli

Friday, 9 May 2014

'Anonymous' press releases...and other news

One recurring feature of County Hall's generously funded department of spin has been the anonymous nature of certain press releases on controversial topics. The infamous 'Sainsbury' Saga' of 2012 resulted in Kevin Madge being named as the guilty party and then found guilty of breaching the code of conduct for using the press office to attack political opponents.

There were those who strongly suspected at the time that a certain senior official had quite a hand in the matter but, well, Kev took the bullet. At a recent scrutiny meeting it transpired that the Chief Executive had also 'signed off' the press release. This episode, and of course the outrageous blacklisting of the South Wales Guardian, eventually led to a review of the press and media protocol, which is currently ongoing.

Just who is responsible for authoring and approving certain press releases can be something of a mystery, February's attack on the Auditor, demanding he retract statements stop 'presenting his opinion as if it were the only opinion that mattered', was published on the council website and also attributed to an unnamed council spokesperson. Oh dear.

This week was no exception with the 'council spokeswoman' again putting in an appearance. This time it was to state that the council were still disagreeing with the Appointed Auditor and that now was not the time to ask Mr James to pay the unlawful monies back (See previous post)

Yesterday I emailed the council press office and asked who wrote this 'corporate' statement and who approved its release? There has been no response as yet, if there is anything other than stony silence, I'll let you know. (Nothing yet, and it's now the 13th May)

Interestingly, at the last meeting of the Policy and Resources Scrutiny meeting an important 'omission' from the previous minutes were mentioned; "reference was made to Minute 8: Press & Media Protocol. The Committee requested that the minutes be amended to reflect a request that had been made for consideration to be given to attributing press statements to individuals rather than to a council “spokesperson”.

What a good idea.

Another item putting in an appearance at this particular scrutiny meeting was a report on the progress of the Carmarthenshire Local Service Board (LSB) which, according to the report, has gone from 'strength to strength'.

This is a little difficult to measure as this body, led by the council, consists of senior management from 'partners' such as the police, the health board, further education, the fire service and the Welsh Government hasn't produced a set of minutes since 2010.

This was pointed out by the scrutiny councillors and apparently it's because of 'administrative reasons' and because it has no decision making powers itself. So there.

You would be forgiven for thinking, from the report that it's main purpose is to dream up new and elaborate jargon including 'intergenerational challenges' and of course, whole system strategic approaches.

To be fair, I'm sure the intentions to collaborate are well founded, and the initiative to set up LSBs by the Welsh Government was originally based on sound principles. We would hope so anyway as this year the LSB has had £1.1m of EU money to spend on developing their strategies and key priorities, including £133,976 for a Development Officer to develop the work of the Board and a Project Monitoring Officer to support the work of the Development Officer...

Nearly half of this money, £504,000 is to fund five 'third sector brokers' in Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion to 'develop links' between voluntary groups and statutory services provided by the two counties. This funding also provided for an 'evaluation process' which the council had commissioned out to an external organisation, a consultancy I imagine. Whether this will improve the lives of those in need is debateable, I expect half a million would have been a welcome boost to the voluntary services themselves.

Our scrutiny councillors asked whether the Board, which has been going since 2008, was actually effective but they were told that 'assessing the effectiveness of partnership working was often difficult', so, I'm guessing that nobody knows. Apparently it will soon become a Statutory body and therefore subject to public scrutiny...they better get those minutes sorted then.

The LSB is also the forum where our council cajoled it's partners into contributing to the council rag, the Carmarthenshire News. You may remember that the Police Commissioner recently decided that the police contribution to the freesheet was better spent elsewhere (ie local independent media) and pulled the funding.

Back yet again to those Wales Audit Office reports and one of the requirements was for the council to review their 'governance' arrangements. The auditor found the failure to publish agenda items in good time; casual pre-meeting meetings of the Executive Board; the presence of beneficiaries of financial decisions remaining in meetings and reports dressed-up to suit a preferred outcome, etc etc all needed urgent review. In other words, you can't carry on as you have done...and we will be watching.

At the extraordinary meeting on the 27th February, Cllr Madge decided that the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) should be the body to oversee the setting up of a cross-party group to review these democratic processes.

Some see the WLGA as merely a lobby group to promote the interests of councils and councillors and a spokesman is usually wheeled out whenever there is press criticism of local authority wastage or misbehaviour. Whether it could be regarded as a bastion for the protection of democracy on behalf of the council taxpayers is another thing.

Anyway, at a recent meeting of the Democratic Services committee it was announced that "the WLGA had agreed to facilitate the establishment, and funding, of an independent review body, which it was hoped would commence its review in mid May and produce its report by September".

I would suggest that for this process to be effective, any meetings of this group should make sure their agendas are published in advance and their meetings are fully minuted. It is not just the final report which is important but the process leading up to its publication. Full transparency is vital.

Its not just the WAO who are monitoring things in County Hall, the Ombudsman is still waiting for the council to complete yet another urgent review, this time regarding Planning Enforcement following a damning report from the watchdog nearly two years ago...

Quite what has happened to the cross-party group which was going to take further advice concerning the lawfulness or otherwise of libel indemnities for officers, we don't know. The offending and unlawful clauses remain, for the moment, suspended.

And finally, a mention of next week's full council meeting (agenda here) which will be discussing one of Caebrwyn's favourite topics, webcasting. Given the success of the pilot, the Exec Board have recommended extending the contract for a further three years and I trust full council will approve.

I just hope someone suggests widening the facility to all open meetings and, in the spirit of new found transparency and reflecting on legislation over the border, protects the democratic rights of anyone in the public gallery to make their own recordings....but I doubt that will happen.

Undertaking; now abandoned in body but not in spirit

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

MP calls for Mark James to repay the cash

Following Pembrokeshire councillors' request last week that Bryn Parry Jones should pay back his unlawful pension payments, Plaid Cymru MP Jonathan Edwards has renewed his call for Carmarthenshire Chief Executive Mark James CBE to pay back his unlawful payments.

He goes one step further and states that Mr James should be 'instructed' to pay back the money.
"The action taken by councillors in Pembrokeshire echo the calls that I and my Plaid Cymru colleagues have made since the publication of the damning Wales Audit Office reports which deemed the payments for the chief executive's benefit to be 'unlawful'.  
"I welcome the position taken by Pembrokeshire Council and firmly believe the chief executive of Carmarthenshire Council should also have to pay back that money." 
"The unlawful payments equated to over £55,000 and it appears that up to £100,000 extra will be spent because of the actions taken by the Labour and Independent Executive Board" 
"Instructing the chief executive to pay back what the auditor considers to be 'unlawful' is not only the right thing to do, but would go some way to clawing back the enormous amount of taxpayers' money which has been spent on this issue."
Then we have the response from, as usual, the unnamed 'council spokeswoman';
"We have been clear that the council does not acknowledge the indemnity as unlawful, and, whilst the pay supplement policy has been rescinded on procedural grounds, we do not concede that it was intrinsically unlawful.  
"Our chief executive benefited from a policy implemented by his employer for a short period of time, and as such we do not consider that pursuing recovery of monies is the best action to take at this time."
Who exactly is saying this? Who is speaking on behalf of the council? Apparently Mr James' stand-in, Dave Gilbert is writing statements for Kevin Madge, so presumably Mr James, with the police investigation over, will be taking up the duty again from now on. 

The council, or whoever it is that is putting out statements, continues to reject the findings of the independent auditor. The auditor has said he will take no further action and as far as the libel indemnity goes, the clause in the constitution has been suspended. If the findings continue to be rejected will the clause go back in? If so then this will, and should, end up in court. I'll take it there myself if I have to.

Unless either the WAO or the seemingly impotent Welsh Government take a firm stand will this set a precedent for other council executives to give away cash, to the total detriment of the taxpayer, and ignore the fact or even the possibility that such payments are unlawful?
It's not just the tens of thousands of pounds paid out unlawfully of course, but the staggering amount spent on defending the chief executive since the auditor flagged up the scandals last year. 

They "do not consider that pursuing recovery of monies is the best action to take at this time", so what is the best action to take? Well, with the police off their backs, sit back and stick two fingers up at the WAO and the taxpayers I suppose, with trebles all round...

(source; Llanelli Star and South Wales Guardian)

9th May; The story has now appeared in the Western Mail;
 MP insists chief executive of Carmarthenshire Council Mark James should pay back money deemed ‘unlawful’ 

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Police call off investigation - updated

The following statement has been issued by the police this afternoon;

“On January 30, 2014 three Public Interest Reports were published by the Wales Audit Office into matters relating to Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire County Councils. Following this, Dyfed Powys Police decided that the matters should be investigated ‘in the public interest’ to ascertain whether or not any criminal offences had taken place.

"Due to the close working relationships and partnership arrangements that exist between Dyfed-Powys Police and both local authorities, it was not appropriate for the Force to carry out the enquiry. As such, the matter was referred to Gloucestershire Constabulary who agreed to undertake the investigation.

"Gloucester Constabulary have now completed their enquiries and have confirmed that following an objective and independent analysis of the evidence, they did not find any evidence to suggest that any criminal offences had taken place. On the basis of this, the police will be taking no further action in relation to these matters.

"Both local authorities have been advised of this decision.”

The South Wales Guardian has reported on the announcement. (Update 4.15pm; all local media have now reported the news).

No indication has yet been given by Carmarthenshire Council when, or if, Mr James will be returning to work other than that he will be meeting with council leader Kevin Madge to discuss the matter.

Plaid Cymru politicians Jonathan Edwards MP and Rhodri Glyn Thomas have issued a joint statement which can be read on the SW Guardian site here; County Hall affair could have been handled better

The pension payments and the libel indemnity both remain unlawful of course.

I will provide further comment with regards to Carmarthenshire when I have digested this astonishing news.

..and here's my further comment;

To be clear, I am not questioning the decision of the police though I will be making a request to see the full report of their investigations.

I would like to remind readers of some of the reasons why a criminal investigation was prompted in the first place.

I'll confine my comments to the unlawful libel indemnity.

The report to the Executive Board when the indemnity was granted in January 2012 grossly misrepresented the legal advice obtained in 2008 and withheld significant information from that 2008 advice, and the advice of the Wales audit Office.

The Wales Audit Office strongly advised that independent legal advice should be sought specific to the case in question before the indemnity was granted. This was ignored and the only specific legal advice came from the lawyer representing Mr James in his counterclaim.

Mr James took part in the decision making process in which he had a clear financial interest. He did not declare an interest and remained in the meeting. Whether or not he spoke in that meeting is unknown and immaterial.

He, and the acting head of law, Linda Rees Jones corresponded three days prior to the Executive Board meeting with regards to the content of the report.

Following the auditor's findings, the indemnity was stopped and the clause in the constitution which allowed it, suspended.

Whether any of this constitutes criminal activity, the police do not believe so. With regards to whether there were wilful and deliberate actions taken, or not taken, to prevent proper scrutiny and ensure that the indemnity went through, again, the police do not believe so.

I take a very different view but that, of course, is only my honestly held opinion.

The outcome of the police investigation doesn't change the fact that both decisions in principle and in process, were unlawful.

And there's a lot more where that came from....

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Pembrokeshire; chief executive to be asked to repay unlawful pension cash

Interesting developments in Pembrokeshire this morning where, at an extraordinary general meeting, councillors voted to write to the Chief Executive, Bryn Parry Jones, and another unnamed officer, to ask them to repay the illegal pension 'pay supplements', which total £45,606.

The motion to 'demand' the repayments had been amended to 'request' after it was feared further legal costs would be incurred.
It remains to be seen whether Mr Parry Jones will feel morally obliged to repay the cash.

I'm sure interested parties from over the border in Carmarthenshire will be watching what happens with interest....

BBC Wales has reported on the decision here, and the Western Mail here.

The background, of course, were the Wales Audit Office findings over unlawful pension payments made to both Mark James of Carmarthenshire County Council and Mr Parry Jones in Pembrokeshire.

In Carmarthenshire, there were additional findings of unlawfulness concerning the libel indemnity paid to Mr James, who 'stepped aside' from his post on the 14th February.
The Carmarthenshire WAO libel indemnity report can be found here, and the pension report here.

Gloucestershire Police are continuing with their investigations.

Pembrokeshire Councillors also considered whether to extend the current webcasting to all open meetings. Despite excellent arguments put forward in favour, the motion was sadly defeated by 30 votes to 22.

I will provide links to both these items when the webcast is archived. (3rd May; Here's a link to the agenda which has handy links to the relevant sections of the webcast under each item, the pension repayment is item 4, webcasting is item 5)

I understand that Carmarthenshire Council's Executive Board has recommended that with total viewing figures of over 26,000 for the pilot, webcasting of full council meetings will continue for another three years.

There is no word on whether it will be extended to all open meetings, neither is there any mention whether or not members of the public will be allowed to make their own recordings, a right which is becoming enshrined in law in England.

Kevin Madge replies to Cllr Caiach's call for his resignation

Leader of the Council, Kevin Madge, has responded to Cllr Caiach's call for his immediate resignation over the land deal between the Council and Scarlets Regional Ltd.

As you will see below, Cllr Madge has removed himself from all blame over the fiasco. Cllr Madge is fond of telling us that there are 'tough decisions' to be made and we need to 'wake up and smell the coffee'. In this case it doesn't smell anything like coffee, as I'm sure he is aware.
Yet again, this whole affair smacks of the deliberate prevention of proper scrutiny.

Was Mr Madge aware that two senior officers were trying hard to get the best result for the public purse? Was he complicit in allowing the chief executive, as it appears from the email disclosure, to 'instruct' that the Scarlets had a hefty amount of the proceeds made available to them to pay off a loan?

As far as we can tell, the 'process agreed by the Executive Board' which he refers to below, was to delegate the responsibility for finalising the details to the head of corporate property, who then did his level best, along with the Director of Resources, to act on behalf of the public before the rug was pulled from under their feet.

As Leader of the Council, surely Cllr Madge knew what had happened?

Executive Board Member Cllr Edmunds, as the consultee in the 'process' certainly did, and, seemingly, it preyed on his conscience enough for him to reveal the shocking details to Cllr Caiach.

The email disclosure the other week was confirmation as to who had given the final 'instructions' to benefit the club over the taxpayer...and it didn't seem to be the head of corporate property, or an elected member.

As the controversies are now with the Wales Audit Office and the European Commission, Cllr Madge has decided to make the subject 'sub judice' and hope it will all go away.

Unfortunately as he continues to put forward 'hard choices' and the cuts begin to bite, the electorate will remember his role in this, and the unlawful payments scandals, and see him as either a weak and ineffectual puppet, or complicit in condoning these scandals.  .

Here's Cllr Madge's reply;

Dear Cllr. Caiach,

Since you have now released your rather one-sided view of events I see no purpose in engaging in further detailed exchanges with you on this matter.

I would reiterate that the process agreed by the Executive Board was followed. The matter was dealt with under delegated powers as approved and an independent valuer was engaged. I personally had no further involvement in the details of the transaction as the decision of Executive Board did not require me to be involved, and I am at a loss to understand why you persist in suggesting otherwise.

I believe the Wales Audit Office and the European Commission are looking at various aspects of the transaction, partly as a result of your allegations, and I would have thought it best to await the outcome of those deliberations rather than continuing to issue
further proclamations in the meantime.

Kevin Madge.

Cllr Caiach has responded to the above statement with this;

Dear Kevin,

Although I have contacted the EU commission I have not yet submitted the details of the car park lease sale as part of the case. Neither have I had any complaint lodged with the WAO on this matter as yet.

If my views are one sided, this is surely the time to put your case on the subject to the people of Carmarthenshire?

Cllr Caiach

For information, and as reported in the Western Mail, I have reported the matter to the Wales Audit Office.


On a separate note, Cneifiwr reports that Cllr Emlyn Dole will be the new leader of the Plaid group on the council replacing Peter Hughes Griffiths who is now vice chair of the council. Cllr Dai Jenkins will be Cllr Dole's deputy. Both councillors have been consistently vocal, when necessary, in their opposition to the ruling administration.

Libel Appeal - Judgement reserved

As judgement has been reserved following yesterday's appeal hearing I cannot comment or speculate on any outcome.

The hearing, which related to Mark James' counterclaim for libel against me, took up the full two hours allowed and the substance of the arguments concerned a reference I had made to the clause in the council's constitution to fund it's officers to bring claims for libel. The issue was one of meaning.
There were three appeal judges and they will make their decision in due course.

I attended the hearing at the Court of Appeal in London and my very grateful thanks go again to my legal team and everyone who has continued to support me.