Friday, 29 July 2016

Ombudsman tells 'brawling councillors' to behave in future - update from 2015

Back in April 2015 the Llanelli Star (article has now gone but I blogged about it here) reported that the police had to be called to a meeting of Llanelli Rural Council after an'altercation' between two councillors on the 8th April 2015.

The ladies concerned, Cllrs Tegwen Devichand (Lab) and Theresa Bowen (Ind) also happen to be Carmarthenshire County Councillors as well as rural Councillors.

At the time, in April 2015, Cllr Devichand was deputy leader, no less, of Labour/Ind led Carmarthenshire Council. Cllr Bowen had parted company from her Labour colleagues and had joined Meryl and Pam on the Independent benches.

The police took no further action but one of the ladies reported the other to the Ombudsman for breaching the code of conduct by 'blocking her pathway' and behaving in a 'threatening manner'. The Ombudsman, given the conflicting statements which suggested that both were quite possibly as bad as each other, decided to investigate both councillors on his own initiative and this was concluded last month.

The outcome was that even though the bust-up had occurred on rural council premises, neither had been acting in their 'public capacity' at the time and so the 'respect' and 'bullying' elements of the Code had not been engaged. Presumably, had they come to blows over the re-positioning of a litter bin, it would have been engaged.

Whilst he concluded that they may well have brought the council into disrepute, and warned them both about their future behaviour, it wasn't in the public interest to refer them to the standards board for further action.

In another case looked at by the Ombudsman last month it seems that Carmarthenshire Council are still having trouble apologising - it's always been an unnatural concept for the top brass at County Hall.

Due to the council's failure to repair a central heating system a gentleman went without heat in his home from October 2015 until February 2016. He complained to the council who apologised - 'Carmarthenshire style'. The Ombudsman clearly judged the apology to be inadequate and told them to try again, re-issue a proper apology, and give the chap £280 for his hardship during those winter months.

You may recall the council were rapped for failing to issue a proper apology to the Breckmans following a damning Ombudsman report in 2012, and in the same year were slammed by the Ombudsman for the way they handle complaints.
In February 2015, in another example, the Ombudsman again took them to task over their complaint handling, describing it as "very poor.... defensive and lacked objectivity", it was also 'inadequate and ineffective' .
Nothing changes....

Friday, 22 July 2016

Carmarthenshire Council enforce £190,390 legal costs

20th October; See later post Legal Charge £190,390 - Court hearing. The hearing is on December 1st 2016 in Carmarthen

4th August; My objections against charging order being made final now filed with court and council.

Further to the Executive Board decision to pursue me for legal costs, I received an Interim Charging Order today for £190,390 against my home. I have 28 days to object to the Charge being made final. As I understand it, following any objection, and I will object, the matter will be then be decided by a judge, possibly at a court hearing. A hundred and ninety grand...
The Council have transferred these proceedings to Carmarthen.

Council chief executive Mr James already has a Charge on my home in relation to his damages of £30,913 and as I have already said, I have been ordered to attend court next week (on the 29th July - this linked post is now updated) to be questioned on my finances regarding this matter before a judge.

There has been no enforcement, to date, for the costs (£41,000) of Mr James' counterclaim, which was illegally funded.

As for other matters, Dyfed Powys Police are still assessing complaints made against me, and I have not heard anything, as yet, about Mr James' threatened High Court action for Contempt of Court.

Whatever happens, I'll fight to the bitter bloody end.

Further posts, for background, can be found on the sidebar of this blog.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Executive Board Agenda - Questions, budgets, Masterplans and the Guildhall - updated

Update 26th July
After a very lengthy meeting, most of which concerned the changes to Llangennech schools to Welsh medium, the Board voted to accept the council's proposals to be sent out to formal consultation. Each side of the argument will have a further say on the matter and the final decision will eventually be made by full council.

Following the inadvertent release of the Guildhall report it was decided to discuss this in public. The Board decided to buy the building for the sum advised by the district valuer, £225,000. The report, with the other options and implications, should now be published (or re-published) on the agenda.

I've heard that work on the new shower block planned for the Pembrey 'Masterplan' actually started a couple of years ago. Construction was stopped when it emerged there was no planning and no building control, and was stopped completely when the newly purchased boilers mysteriously disappeared... (See also Pembrey Park scandal - where does the buck stop?)

*  *  *

There's quite a packed agenda for our executive board councillors to nod through next Tuesday. The Member for education, Cllr Gareth Jones (Plaid) will be particularly busy as the raft of public questions, both for and against council plans to change Llangennech schools from bilingual to Welsh medium, deferred from June's Executive Board meeting, (see post here) have reappeared on the agenda and will be put to him.

The deferment was required as Cllr Jones had apparently gone to watch the Euro footie in France. A 'long standing arrangement' which, unfortunately or otherwise, hadn't been conveyed to the twenty-odd folk who turned up at the last meeting.

The answers will have been carefully prepared, particularly as a judicial review challenge has been mentioned by those opposing the plans, and the priority will be to control any potential outbursts, but whatever your take on this whole matter, it is refreshing to see members of the public exercising their democratic rights to speak.

Also on the agenda is a taster of the next budget which won't actually go through until next February so it's early days yet. There's plenty of time to chop and change but as signalled back in February this year, school budgets are in for a hammering. £6 million to be axed in 2017/18, another £6 million in 2018/19 and £3.4m in 2019/20. How this will impact on educational standards remains to be seen but at a rough guess, it won't be positive. Valuable teaching staff will be lost - there is a limit to how much can be saved through 'back office efficiencies'.

In general terms 576 jobs have been lost across the council over the last three years, 374 of them from the bottom rung of the pay scale and exit packages have cost a total of £11.2m. Out of the 374 (which accounts for £2,4m in exit packages) 142 have been compulsory redundancies.

On the subject of education I took a brief look again at the 'Education through Regional Working' website, ERWs being the regional education 'consortia' of officials and councillors, and the relevant body in these parts covers Carms, Pembs, Ceredigion Swansea, Neath Port Talbot and Powys. A brief delve into the minutes show a great deal of talking, and, surprisingly, given the topic, several spelling mistakes...I noticed, for example, there were numerous 'observors' at these meetings.

Presumably these regional arrangements were a Welsh Government precursor to council mergers which are now on the back-burner, in the short term anyway, so each authority is still a Local Education Authority. As with any extra tier of government the ERW is a multilayered organisation of bureaucratic expense and its main existence seems to be as a vehicle to dish out the WG education cash to its constituent parts.

Prior to the ERW, this money was paid direct to each LEA but now there's an additional layer of middle men and red tape. It's not cheap either costing over half a million to administer per year, In last years accounts, the figures included a Managing Director on £70k and another unnamed employee on £100k. £221k was also shelled out on consultants.

Another purpose of the ERW is to improve, or at least maintain, educational standards and a network of Challenge Advisers are employed to support and monitor local standards.  This is on top of each councils' own scrutiny committee. The challenge advisers are not employed by the ERW though but by each local authority.

Carmarthenshire is currently advertising for three of them (£55k - £58k pa) though have limited this to internal applicants only. Perhaps this arrangement will provide an opportunity for those senior teaching staff displaced by the council's mammoth education cuts. Personally I'd prefer teachers in the classrooms to 'challenge advisers' with clipboards.

Back to the agenda and what better way of persuading people to forget about dodgy deals, clandestine meetings, hidden agendas, cover-ups and alleged corruption, (see previous posts), than a Masterplan or two.

The future visions for Parc Howard and Pembrey Country Park are reproduced in glorious glossy technicolour graphics. £150k has already been dug out of the reserves for the play area at Parc Howard, much to the surprise of town and county councillors who have been told that the council can't afford to maintain their own local playgrounds so they must take them over, or else...It was an 'exceptional circumstance' apparently. No one begrudges a playground but the rest of the vision appears to be highly dependant on private investment so let's hope things are a little more transparent this time round...

The plans for Pembrey park are even more visionary with the estimated cost put at £1.5m, but unfortunately there's only £80k left this year after some emergency work. Again, 'sympathetic' private investment is required. Again, given the scandals, and the mess over a relatively small catering tender,  the words brewery and p***up spring to mind. See also my previous post.
I suspect, in the long run, the dreams of Mark and Meryl and their Grandmasterplan will be realised... it's just a roundabout way of getting there.

There's a small but quiet hint of what's to come with regards to the Wellness Centre, or Wellness Shed, as Cadno recently dubbed the project with a £25,000 'contribution' to the project manager's salary. So far none of the payments to this project have to be signed off by the council, just Mark and Meryl by the look of it. Exactly how many £millions will be involved remains to be seen..

Finally I must mention the report on the council's prospective purchase of the Carmarthen Guildhall. Obviously this grand old building, the former court, is a central feature of the town and calls have been made for the council to buy it from HM Courts. The report appeared on the agenda for about 20 minutes until someone decided it should be exempt and discussed in private. However,  the deletion wasn't complete and, at the time of writing, it still remains on the full report pack.
I have kept a copy if anyone's interested, and in case it disappears completely.
(Update 17:41 - after 24 hours online, the report has now been removed and is a 'restricted' document)

The decision whether or not to buy the Grade 2* listed building, for £225,000, is up to the Executive Board only, not full council but the cost implications (running costs estimated at over £100k per year), options, potential uses and negotiations should be of general interest. I particularly favour the option to turn part of it into a police station, with bars on the windows to boot, combined with council offices...preferably the chief executive's...

The report adds that HM Courts "claim" (sounds like the council don't believe the courts) to have spent £1m on refurbishments since 2009. It does seem a little incredible and appears to have amounted to little more than a lick of paint, a bit of polyfiller and some rewiring. It sounds like it could actually do with a new roof. The costs could be astronomical.

The disability access is poor and the restrictions from the listing and involvement of CADW could prove problematic as well as lengthy. Various council owned historic artefacts are currently in the building and in danger of damage, these would have to be removed and stored.

But it is certainly a grand old building and a historic centrepiece of the town and, as the report states, HM Courts might go and sell it to someone "unscrupulous" (there's irony there folks) and, more to the point, there might be "public criticism" if they don't accept the valuation and go ahead with the purchase. For those who cherish the Guildhall, even with the potential cost in capital and maintenance, the other option, to hold out until HM Courts, out of desperation, accepts the council's lower offer, might be a gamble too far.

An interesting one to watch and given its inadvertent publication, maybe it'll be put back on the open agenda and considered in public.

Guildhall, Carmarthen

Monday, 11 July 2016

Pembrey Park scandal - where does the buck stop?

Update September 2016; Keeping close to the nest 

Update 13th July at end of this post.

Previous post; Pembrey Park scandal - an update

The council's Audit Committee met on Friday and discussed, amongst other things, the Pembrey Country Park scandal. It wasn't called that of course and appeared on the agenda as the innocently titled 'Coastal facilities'. The Audit Committee is not webcast (it should be) and so filming/recording is banned, however a short report has appeared in the Llanelli Star.

As I have mentioned in my previous post (link above), there is an opposition question from Cllr Jeff Edmunds to Cllr Dole on this very topic scheduled for Wednesday's (13th July) full council meeting, which will be webcast. Worth a watch perhaps although there has been plenty of time to script the response... (Update 13th July below)

The Head of Leisure, Ian Jones, presented the damning report on Friday and appeared to blame the chaotic failures on cutbacks and departmental restructuring. On that basis we can expect similar reports from every other council department. The 'lessons had been learned' line was trotted out and one middle manager has been suspended pending an investigation.

Whatever happens next, the most significant aspect of all this remains the fact that the 'issues', ie possible fraud and blatant breaches of nearly every policy and procedure, were flagged up long ago but were never acted upon, and as the Herald revealed, were actively covered up by senior officers. The internal audit report was commissioned following the retirement of the previous director.

The Star article quotes Cllr Bill Thomas (Lab) who demanded to know who was responsible and said that given that this was one of the worst example of corporate failure he'd seen, the buck stops with the Head of Leisure. Cllr Thomas, being one of our more outspoken councillors, has the dubious honour of being a subject of the Mark James Intelligence Service and have his own file in the presidential suite.

During the time which encompassed many of the 'historic issues', the Country Park was also under the general responsibility of the Director of Regeneration and Leisure, Dave Gilbert OBE, he is now an adviser to the Swansea Bay City Region Board. He was also the deputy chief executive of the council, with all that that might entail...

We know, of course that the buck actually goes higher than a mere Head of Department, or even a Director; as I said, it's the failure to act on earlier warnings, and attempts at cover-up, which is so damning. This was corporate knowledge. and to say that this knowledge didn't go right to the very top is simply laughable. In addition, the entire Pembrey peninsular, including its 'coastal facilities' have been the subject of one of Mark and Meryl's numerous 'Masterplans' which now includes the hiving off of leisure facilities to an arms length trust.

Incidentally this all seems to have happened (along with the pension and libel indemnity scandals) on the watch of Head of Law/Monitoring Officer Linda Rees Jones, who's appointment was made permanent in a curious interpretation of the constitution, ie, hand picked by the chief executive.

Heads tend not to roll in the corporate fortress of county hall, no matter what. From illegally bankrolling lawsuits to tax avoidance pension scams to shortchanging the taxpayer to benefit a private company. From snooping on councillors emails to emasculating the democratic process into an officer-led toxic culture. From threatening the local press to economising with the truth when speaking to them. To name but a few.

The only heads to roll are those belonging to the people who blow the whistle, those that criticise. or those that uncover something nasty in the woodshed...

Update 13th July;

Cllr Dole responded to Cllr Jeff Edmunds' question to full council by saying it would be inappropriate to comment whilst an internal investigation into a member of staff was taking place.

Cllr Edmunds' supplementary question enquired as to the fate of the whistleblower, to whom they should all be grateful, and the current situation regarding their employment. Cllr Dole merely repeated his first response.

Cllr Dole's response was to say as little as possible, a classic council PR exercise in containment....
There was no further discussion. Discussion is possible at the discretion of the Chair but this never happens. For 'Chair' read 'Chief Executive'.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Unison Carmarthenshire campaign against outsourcing social care

Carmarthenshire County Unison branch have launched a campaign against the council's plans to outsource part, or all of social care services by forming a Local Authority Trading Company (LATC).
The union's concerns are outlined in their newsletter below;

(Pic source; Branch Secretary Mark Evans' Facebook page)

Followers of Mrs Angry's Broken Barnet blog will be well aware of the dangers of large scale outsourcing for staff and residents, particularly for those residents who are elderly or vulnerable and, as she says in this post from 2013 "the company is run by a board of unelected and unaccountable members, removing the scrutiny of democratic overview from its operations".
She continues with the warning of introducing a "market economy into an area where it is grossly inappropriate, seeking to make profit out of the needs of our most vulnerable and dependent residents".

In Carmarthenshire the latest buzzwords are 'innovative' or 'alternative' methods of service delivery, which Plaid once condemned (in those far-off days in opposition) as nothing more than back-door privatisation, as I mentioned earlier this year;
'Whilst in opposition last year the Plaid group criticised the Labour leadership for their 'obsession' for 'essentially outsourcing services and reducing democratic oversight'. It seems that the obsession for back-door privatisation was highly contagious'.

Another issue regarding LATCs, trusts and other arms-length arrangements, despite delivering public services, with public money, is that they are exempt from Freedom of Information requests as they are commercial trading companies.

Since being granted the Key to the Presidential Toilet, Cllr Emlyn 'two barns' Dole and the Plaid leadership have embraced the progress to outsource Leisure Services and Affordable Housing, both of which are well on their way to join Cwm Environmental, the existing LATC for waste services. Social care privatisation has already begun with the closure of council run care homes and over 70% of home care services now in the hands of private companies.

With the final push to form a LATC, currently aimed at adult social care, what precious little scrutiny and democratic oversight there was, (there's never been anything resembling accountability), will be lost forever, or until it's too late.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

The Pembrey Park scandal, an update - updated

Later post 11th July here.

Scroll to end of post for update 6th July

Back in March an internal audit report emerged identifying serious issues with the running of Pembrey Country Park and the Millenium Coast. The audit was carried out following the retirement of the previous director and deputy chief executive, Mr. Dave Gilbert. These issues were described as 'historic' and assurances were given that no fraud had been identified.

Calls by councillors to be told exactly what had gone on, and to involve the police and the Wales Audit Office were dismissed by council leader Dole as the height of impertinence, shrugged off, and matters remained in-house.

In April the Herald reported on further allegations including recorded phone calls suggesting a cover-up of the 'issues' by very senior officers, for example, "for f***s sake don't go to the police". The Herald also learned that some documentation had now been passed to the police though not, of course, by the council. It was also rumoured that a senior manager had been suspended from within the department.

Meanwhile, a further report is going to the Audit Committee next week (Fri 8th July) to update them on the 'action plan' and progress made to date. Reassurances are given to the committee, in the form of restructuring, realignments and the creation of more managers, to suggest that all is now in hand.

A little more detail of those 'historic issues' can be read from the report, for example;

"It was not possible to place an assurance that all income due has been collected, recorded, banked, monitored and accurately reflected in the Authority’s accounts."

To you and me this means quite simply that money went missing.

"It is not possible to place an assurance that all assets are fully accounted for."

So not only did money go missing but so did equipment.

And "Employee Declaration of Interests are not being completed when it would be appropriate to do so" suggests a very smelly can of worms.

There was a failure to follow Financial Procedure Rules, Contract Procedure Rules, Quotation Procedure Rules, Transport & Engineering Unit Policy, Health & Safety, Building Regulations, Control of Vibration at Work Regulations and Human Resource Policies.

There were also issues with public liability insurance cover, and also the security and safety of fuel storage.

All in all a time bomb waiting to happen. The problem for the council is not what actually happened, maybe the police will make their own enquiries (if their time is not wasted elsewhere), nor future measures to rectify the mess, but who knew what was going on, and for how long.

As I have said before, even I have been aware of serious allegations for over two years and the information which has emerged inside and outside the confines of County Hall makes it very apparent that the knowledge, and alleged cover-up, went right to the very top.

Update 6th July

Labour group leader Cllr Jeff Edmunds has tabled a question (see below) to Council leader Emlyn Dole for next Wednesday's full council meeting. Expect the usual flannel by way of a response so let's hope Cllr Edmunds can articulate a decent supplementary question.

“An article in the Llanelli Herald on the 20th May 2016 made extremely serious allegations against this council. The front page headline of the report was ' COUNCIL SCANDAL AT PEMBREY PARK' and this article alleged the 'fixing' of the contract to provide catering facilities at the park and conspiring the termination of employment of certain staff member(s) amongst other things. 
These are extremely distressing and alarming accusations of possible corruption in the authority and my question to The Leader of Council is:- 
What is the council's current situation surrounding these allegations and what are we doing about it?”.