Sunday, 15 January 2017

The Sicilian Cartel and the Tip of the Iceberg

Many years ago Cneifiwr was working for a large, prestigious and now sadly defunct company in the Big City. The upper echelons were like an old boys' club, and they enjoyed a jet set lifestyle with a cellar full of very expensive vintage wines and ports, "business" trips on Concorde, the best hotels and pretty much unlimited expenses.

Shortly after Cneifiwr joined, shockwaves went through middle management when the first of a series of belt tightening measures was announced for the lower ranks. Henceforth, horrified staff were told, they would no longer be allowed to order a different wine with every course at lunch or dinner.

Slowly but surely the good old days were coming to an end.

Some years later news of a scandal involving the Head of Internal Audit percolated down to one of Cneifiwr's drinking holes.

The Head of Internal Audit was feared and god-like. It was drummed into us that he was the moral guardian of the company; the eyes and ears that were supposed to keep everybody on the straight and narrow. As it happened, Cneifiwr was on nodding terms with God's deputy, a fierce and expensively dressed old bat who would occasionally join Cneifiwr and his cronies for a glass or three of something and a little light flirting.

It turned out that he had died in rather compromising circumstances after a wild party at his very expensive address in Manhattan, a party which had involved lots of drugs and some very expensive ladies. Worse, it seemed that the Old Bat, our occasional drinking buddy, had been conducting a clandestine affair with her boss for years, and that a great deal of company money had been privately invested in some very swish real estate.

The second in command of the company, a large and pompous man who had the strange habit of thrusting both hands down his trousers and fiddling with himself while talking down to his inferiors, was instantly dispatched to New York to tidy things up, a job which involved rather more than just running round with a duster and Hoover. The Old Bat disappeared, probably into early retirement with a himbo in tow, and the whole affair was consigned to the icy depths of the Hudson River, never to be spoken about again.

There were no prosecutions, the police never seem to have been troubled with the affair on either side of the Atlantic, and nothing leaked out to the press; or if it did they kept shtum.

Carmarthenshire County Council will count itself very lucky indeed if it manages to pull off a similarly successful cover-up of the scandals emerging from Pembrey and the Millennium Coastal Park.

For a start, some of the allegations and rumours are circulating well beyond County Hall, and second, Cllr Bill Thomas is on the case.

As far as Cllr Thomas is concerned, one or two senior officers will be praying for all they are worth that the veteran councillor will decide not to stand for re-election as an unaffiliated member in May. Incredibly, the mad house which is the Labour Party in Carmarthenshire has deselected him.

This week's Carmarthenshire Herald and its Llanelli sister (both worth at least 70p) carry an interview with Cllr Thomas and a report of the Audit Committee meeting on 6 January.

Looking back on the meeting, Cllr Thomas told the newspaper that he thought members of the Audit Committee were being duped, and he is calling for a full "forensic" audit of Pembrey Country Park.

Responding to Cllr Thomas's concerns, the council wheeled out its chief financial officer, Chris Moore, to pirouette and spin across some very thin ice as he spoke to the Herald. The paper was given the standard County Hall line. Progress was being made, processes improved, members had been 'reassured', etc.

During the meeting Cllr Thomas had asked if the committee was aware of any imminent court cases. Apparently not, it would seem, which is very odd given that a hearing has been scheduled for 6 February in Cardiff. Even odder when you consider that the council is a party to the case and that one or two of those present at the meeting are likely to play a prominent role in the proceedings.

The solution to this mystery probably boils down to semantics. The 6 February hearing is an employment tribunal, a judicial body stuffed full of lawyers which will at some point deliver a verdict. But it is not, as Mr Moore helpfully pointed out, a criminal court.

The line which council officers are grimly sticking to is that there is no evidence of criminality at Pembrey. It's just that they can't give assurances that all assets can be accounted for, and they cannot guarantee that all revenues from gate receipts and other activities were correctly booked.

The council had engaged in a "dialogue" with the police, he said, and Dyfed Powys had now confirmed that they would be taking no further action.

Note the very careful wording. Did the council go to the police with evidence of fraud and corrupt practices which had been presented to it (remember that there is a recording in which a senior officer yelps "For Christ's sake, don't go to the police)?

It would seem not, even though the accusations are of an extremely serious nature. Whereas the chief executive had no qualms about wasting police time with complaints about Jacqui Thompson's use of the phrase "lumpy carpets", the council seems to have decided not to worry the boys in blue with trivial worries about fraud, theft, blackmail and corruption.

What we can surmise from this is that the police approached the council with some questions (or a "dialogue") based on material which had been forwarded to them by third parties, including Nia Griffiths MP.

Cneifiwr understands that the MP has been given a contradictory assurance by the police that their investigations are continuing.

Performing a final pirouette, Mr Moore told the Herald that members of the Audit Committee had been reassured by officers that action had been taken, including seconding a new team to run the park. If they were reassured by that, they probably also believe that the moon is made of cheese.

Back on 22 March 2016, members of the Audit Committee were told for the first time that various "historical" issues had been identified at the park. The very next day the then manager of the park, Rory Dickinson, assaulted the manager of the catering facilities in a row about what in all likelihood was a severely compromised tender process.

Mr Dickinson remained in post, despite facing a welter of allegations about his conduct, until he resigned from the council a week before his trial seven months later. Was the new team seconded to run the park before or after Mr Dickinson's abrupt departure, which meant that the council had to find someone to replace him in any event? Was the council really as proactive as Mr Moore would like us to believe?

The very anodyne version of what has happened at Pembrey spoon fed to members of the Audit Committee is, as many of them will be aware, a very pale reflection of accusations which extend very much further than the gates of the country park.

The claims include fraud on an industrial scale, thuggery, secret attempts to hive off public assets, nepotism and cover-ups of utterly bizarre conduct by certain officers. One alleged cover-up relates to an incident in which a naturally aggrieved husband caught a senior manager in bed with his wife.The angry husband is said to have thrown the officer out of a first floor bedroom window, breaking his arm. He was then carted off to A&E with the irate husband in pursuit, with another fracas ensuing at the hospital.

After a high level intervention from Jail Hill, the incident was quietly smoothed over. Meryl ("we always defend our officers") was apparently not amused.

Readers with long memories will recall that the latest developments are not the first time that Pembrey has been the subject of controversy.

Back in July 2013 an almighty row broke out when Unison alleged that the council was preparing to privatise the park. Council leader at the time was Kevin Madge (Lab), with Meryl Gravell then, as now, responsible for Regeneration and Leisure.

The allegations met with a furious response from County Hall which released a statement couched in language which sounds more like a hybrid dowager duchess/stroppy teenager on Facebook than a public body:

 Unison's claims are complete and utter tosh and scaremongering. This is same old same old rumour and fabricated diatribe that is resurrected every few years that has absolutely no foundation at all. It is a downright and cheap-shot lie that the park is for sale, designed to provoke anxiety.

Contrary to that outburst, Cneifiwr understands that very real discussions with external investors took place, and that expressions of interest came from far and wide, including from someone in Australia who wanted £22,500 to be paid in expenses to enable him to travel to Pembrey. It was later established that he was a bit strapped for cash at the time after his rose farm went bust.

Proposals included building a theme park on part of the park, extending out on to land owned by Pembrey Airport. Readers may recall that at one time Pembrey Airport had this interesting message to would-be investors on its website:

One of the few Airports in the United Kingdom that has 5000 acres of adjoining land available for joint venture with very little planning and environmental constraints. We are within Convergence funding Area (qualifies for European funding). Pembrey Airport is exempt planning and large tracts of freehold development land are immediately available from the Local Authority.

Sadly, these exciting plans came to nothing, probably because would-be investors discovered that the council had inconveniently leased off some of the biggest cash generators in the park, and some of the allegations now swirling around suggest that attempts to get rid of those inconvenient leaseholders may have something to do with the turbulence which the park has seen in recent years.

Where is Anthony Barrett when you need him?

Friday, 13 January 2017

New Year Honours

After the usual nauseating lists of gongs for Tory party donors, shifty businessmen, hangers-on and assorted brown nosers, here's a richly deserved municipal award from Private Eye which is unlikely to make it into the glass cabinets in the lobby of County Hall.




Sunday, 8 January 2017

Undulating Axminster

In the smoke and mirrors world of spin and public relations management, the defective moral compasses used by some authorities can lead them into believing that anything goes when they set about the business of shoring up their reputations.

As this blog has pointed out ad nauseam, the joke on these public institutions, and Carmarthenshire County Council is by no means alone in this, is that while they move heaven and earth to protect what they fondly believe are unassailable reputations for excellence in every way, an increasingly cynical public has long since concluded, often unfairly, that the same institutions are rotten to the core.

Let's call it the public relations paradox.

Simpler souls might think that a wiser option and one which might help restore tarnished images would be to fess up, acknowledge that we all live in the real world where not everyone, not even public servants, is an angel, and root out the bad apples. But that is not how things work.

It is this paradox which explains why whistleblowers so often find themselves treated as the real villains. It helps explain why, for example, Cllr Jacob Williams in Pembrokeshire found himself caught up in a Kafka-esque procedure designed to silence and discredit him for daring to post a link to a Western Telegraph article about that council's ongoing grants scandal.

Neither the article nor the comments beneath it submitted by members of the public named the council officer at the centre of the row, but he nevertheless felt, or quite possibly was persuaded to feel, that his reputation had been besmirched and his human rights infringed. Why, one or two commentators had even called for the Fraud Squad to be sent in. What an outrageous suggestion to make.

The slight problem with using these comments as a stick with which to beat Cllr Williams was that after a great deal of prodding, the council itself called in the cops.

For much, much more (a long Sunday afternoon read, perhaps), turn to the councillor's blog and embark on Trumped Up Charges. Parts 1 and 2 out now, with a promise that Bryn Parry Jones will enter the scene in Part 3.

In the same vein, when Cllr Siân Caiach inadvertently discovered a few years back that her official e-mail account was being "monitored" by council officers, the chief executive claimed the complaint was an attack on the integrity of the hapless council employee tasked with accessing her e-mails.

Further afield, readers of the Christmas issue of Private Eye were treated to a brief report on the activities of Cleveland Police in the north of England. A whistleblower had tipped off a local newspaper that all was not well in the force, and that among other things an internal review had found evidence of widespread racism.

The force then invoked powers to tap the landlines, mobile phones and home phones of two journalists on a local paper in an attempt to discover the identity of the whistleblower, arguing before an Investigatory Powers Tribunal that the racism report was damaging the force's reputation, and was therefore "not in the public interest".

A verdict is due this month, but the judge, Mr Justice Edis, commented in the final hearing that, "Isn't it in the public interest that the police force should have a reputation it deserves, rather than an artificially good reputation that it gets from brushing things under the carpet?"

Luckily Mr Justice Edis is a judge and does not live in Carmarthenshire because his reference to uneven floor coverings may well have prompted the council chief executive, Mark James CBE, to make a complaint to the police of criminal harassment.

That is what happened last year to blogger Jacqui Thompson who used the phrase "lumpy carpets" in a piece about the ongoing Pembrey Country Park scandal.

One of the odder aspects of this complaint is that Jacqui Thompson was simply quoting an opinion piece by Cadno in the Carmarthenshire Herald, as the council's press office which monitors the press, blogs and social media for criticism of Jail Hill would have been well aware.

As far as we know, Cadno has not had his brush felt by Dyfed Powys Police for this defamatory reference to whoever was responsible for the carpets in County Hall, but the cases of Jacob Williams and Jacqui Thompson show that even quoting or linking to mildly critical comments on local newspapers articles can land you in serious trouble with your council in what some people still like to call "a free country".

As for snooping on whistleblowers, the press, councillors and bloggers, we can all sleep easily in the knowledge that responsibility for supervising the use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act lies in the capable hands of Cllr Pam Palmer who would no doubt firmly resist any attempts to put anyone under covert surveillance to protect the county council's immaculate reputation.

__________________


That was a long preamble to what will, for various reasons, have to be a fairly short update on the scandals emanating from Pembrey County Park, or as the council would prefer to have it, the progress it is making in tightening up various procedures.

Although there had been rumours and whispers that all was not well at Pembrey for some time, the first councillors got to hear about it officially was when a very brief report on Pembrey Country Park and the Millennium Coastal Park appeared on the agenda of a meeting of the Audit Committee on 22 March 2016.

The report said that a number of weaknesses had been identified after the robustness of various procedures had been tested. Various things needed to be tightened up to ensure that policies were correctly adhered to, and that the review had come about at the request of the new Director, Jake Morgan (who rejoined Carmarthenshire after a spell at the Kremlin on the Cleddau in Haverfordwest under Bryn Parry Jones). Any issues identified were "historical".

Several councillors smelled a rat. What they had been given was not a report detailing allegations or the results of any investigations into them, but a very bland summary saying that new measures needed to be put in place to account for revenue, assets and health and safety, etc.

The even blander minutes recorded:

 In terms of the review of the leisure facilities at Pembrey Country Park and the Millennium Coastal Park which had been undertaken at the request of the Director of Communities the Committee was assured by the Head of Leisure that the weaknesses identified were being addressed and officers would be working closely with the Audit Section. This included ensuring that Corporate Financial Procedure Rules were adhered to at all times and that health and safety issues were addressed. Members were advised that an Action Plan was being prepared in respect of the issues in question and it was suggested that this could be brought to the Committee at its next meeting.


Much as the senior officers may have worried about the health and safety of park users, it is fair to say that they were probably even more concerned about the risk to their own health and safety should anyone peek under those allegedly lumpy carpets.

Councillors were assured that there was no evidence of any fraud.

The following month, the full council met and a couple of councillors wondered whether findings from investigations into the "historical" issues should be handed for checking to the police, or even worse, the Wales Audit Office.

Certainly not, they were told, the clear implication being that this was all about procedural fine tuning with no hint of any criminality.

The Audit Committee next met on 16 May, but would have been disappointed if they were looking forward to the update promised back in March. Instead they appointed a successor to Sir David Lewis whose retirement at this tricky juncture must have lightened the mood on Jail Hill somewhat.

Roll forward to the next Audit Committee on 8 July 2016 where the minutes record in full technicolor magnolia that:


Reference was made to the serious failings which had come to light at Pembrey Country Park and an assurance was sought that lessons have been learned and taken on board.  The Head of Leisure pointed out that the rate of change in the service over the past 4/5 years had been substantial.  He added that the challenge was to deliver services whilst deriving income at the same time.  The lesson they had learned was the importance of having the correct structure in place.  He assured the Committee that processes and procedures are being put in place and progress was being made.

Lessons had been learned, progress was being made, and the challenge was really not about unfortunate "historical" issues but delivering services and improving income.

Nothing to worry about there then. 

The committee was back at work on 30 September where it considered another brief summary. There had been yet more progress and improvement, and "the Head of Leisure outlined the measures being taken to resolve the catering issues at the Park which included an extended café at the ski shop for an interim period whilst refurbishment work was being undertaken."

According to the minutes, "the Committee was reassured that appropriate measures and procedures were being put in place to address the increased cash flow at the park since the establishment of the caravan site".

Far from this being a scandal, it was actually all about maximising cash flow.

In view of what had been going on behind the scenes and was about to happen a few weeks later, members of the committee should have been left feeling rather less than reassured by what they heard

A big part of the "catering issues" involved allegations that the tender process for a contract to run the park cafe and kiosks had been rigged.

The local company which had run the catering facilities for a number of years was SFS Events, run by Ms Stephanie Thomas. SFS lost the contract to a Yorkshire-based company after what the Head of Leisure, Ian Jones, described as "a rigorous application process designed to get the best value and service for the County Council and users of Pembrey Country Park"

Unfortunately, this turned out to be a little wide of the mark. The outcome of the tender process was challenged, and the whole process was scrapped in July, with the council saying,"it is possible that a member of staff involved in the process may have had a personal interest which might be perceived to compromise the impartiality and independence of the process".

Note the equivocations with all of those 'possibles', 'mays' and 'perceiveds'. The tender process had been gravely compromised, and in most people's book, this bland statement would have been reworded to read "suspected corruption".

Having been reassured, members of the Audit Committee may have spluttered on their cornflakes when they opened the Llanelli Herald or the Llanelli Star in the last week of October to read that Rory Dickinson, the council's 'Countryside and Coast' manager, had pleaded guilty to assault against Mrs Stephanie Thomas of SFS Events.

Observant members of the committee will also have noted the date of the assault with some discomfort because it took place on 23 March 2016, the day after they had been presented with a report which spoke of progress in dealing with "historic" issues:

A former Carmarthenshire Council manager has been fined nearly £1,000 after he admitted assaulting a catering manager in a row over the tendering process at Pembrey Country Park.

While appearing at Llanelli Magistrates' Court this afternoon, Rory Dickinson pleaded guilty to assaulting Stephanie Jayne Thomas on March 23 earlier this year.

(Llanelli Star)

It is now clear that the vague issues referred to in the March 2016 report to the Audit Committee were anything but historic. Like proverbial mushrooms, members of the Audit Committee were being kept in the dark and fed horse poo.

In view of the seriousness of the allegations, councillors may also wonder why the council did not refer Mr Dickinson's activities to the police, and why he was allowed to resign from the council a week before the trial in October.

As a senior manager put it when confronted by a whistleblower recording their conversation, "FFS don't call the police!"
·     
The Dickinson case is by no means the end of matters. Back in October, Ms Thomas told the Llanelli Herald that she was still involved in a legal dispute with the council, and a further court hearing in a different case also relating to Pembrey Country Park is scheduled for 6 February in Cardiff.

In the meantime, the Audit Committee plods on. The most recent meeting took place on 6 January, with members being told of yet more 'progress'.

Unfortunately, meetings of this key committee are not broadcast or filmed, and unless you go along in person, you will have to reply on press reports or those heavily disinfected minutes. What we do know is that Cllr Bill Thomas (Lab., Lliedi, deselected) took up the cudgels once more and questioned the council's Head of Leisure, Ian Jones, and that the questions focussed on the fate of machinery and other assets belonging to the park.

The minutes will not be available for another couple of weeks at least, but no doubt we will read once more that members were reassured to hear that there was no evidence of any theft or fraud, which is what they were told.

The catering contract, the assault on Ms Thomas and the fate of those assets are just some of the ingredients  swirling around in this toxic soup. Others include claims that one employee was taking £10,000 a week out of the park; extortion; illegal, unlicensed commercial fishing; a sexual assault, blackmail and industrial scale cover-ups.

Of course, there is no hint of anything remotely worth telling the police about in any of those trivial allegations. References to lumpy carpets by a blogger, on the other hand, are a much more serious matter.


A key question is who knew what and when. Jake Morgan's March 2016 report was into "historical" issues which would have taken place during the tenure of his predecessor, Dave Gilbert OBE (now advising the Swansea Bay City Region). How much did Gilbert know about what was happening in his department? By the same token, was Cllr Meryl Gravell as former council leader and current portfolio holder ("we always defend our officers") in the loop?

And given the extraordinarily sensitive nature of what has happened, what part was played by the chief executive, and has there been a concerted cover-up and attempt to mislead councillors by some officers?

OBEs and CBEs all round!





Friday, 30 December 2016

Rhodri Glyn Thomas enters the fray - Updated

Update 4 January

In an interview with Golwg360, Rhodri Glyn Thomas says that it is a lack of political discipline which brought about the undemocratic culture in Carmarthenshire County Council, adding that decades of coalitions with the Independents in permanent control has meant that officers have developed more and more power over policy.

His aim is to secure a clear Plaid majority on the council as a first step towards restoring political control by elected members.

Rhodri argues that Emlyn Dole has made some progress, but that reliance on the Independents means that there is still a long way to go.

__________________

Rhodri Glyn Thomas, who stood down as AM for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr at the election in May, has announced his intention of standing as Plaid candidate for St Clears in the May 2017 county council elections. The seat is currently held by Independent Philip Hughes.

It's fair to say that Cllr Hughes has not made much of an impression during his long period in office. He served as a member of Meryl Gravell's cabinet, and made one of his very rare contributions in defence of the indefensible during the EGM which debated the chief executive's unlawful pension and libel indemnity schemes.

At the time hacks who had been exiled to the public gallery were sent into a panic. "Who the hell is that?" several of them asked in audible whispers.

In an interview with the BBC, Rhodri said he wants to protect the local leisure centre from cuts and challenge the "democratic deficit" where "officials run the council".

"We need to ensure elected members run the council", he added.

If you listen carefully, you can probably hear the sound of pencils being snapped in the Executive Suite on Jail Hill.

It is unlikely that Rhodri is on Mark James's Christmas card list. Earlier this year, after almost a year of asking and several very curt rebuffs, a constituent, Mrs Trisha Breckman, finally succeeded in being granted an audience with the council chief executive to discuss the appalling treatment she had received from the council over the last 15 years.

As is common in such cases, Mrs Breckman let Mr James know that she intended to bring along a representative to support her in what was likely to be a very difficult meeting. The representative she chose was her AM, Rhodri Glyn Thomas.

James immediately replied with an angry e-mail cancelling the appointment. He would consent to Mrs Breckman bringing along a friend, but "Rhodri is not her ‘friend’ he is the AM, at least for now. In my view, that is extending the meeting to include third parties", he wrote sniffily, before adding that he was no longer prepared to meet her.

So now we know. You may have been elected by a large majority to serve the people of a large chunk of Carmarthenshire, but to Mr James you are just an interfering third party.

After more behind the scenes shuttle diplomacy, the meeting was eventually rescheduled. Minus the democratically elected Assembly Member.

More on this extraordinary and deeply disturbing story in due course.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

The Marriage from Hell


When poor old Kevin Madge was unceremoniously mown down as leader of the Labour group and Leader of the Council on Carmarthenshire County Council just after the 2015 general election, the pathologist's report showed that he had been stabbed several times in the front with blades made in Llanelli, while buried in his back were a collection of hat pins and sharpened knitting needles marked "Property of  Abergwili WI".

What did for him was probably a lethal combination of factional scheming and the much delayed realisation on the Labour benches that Kev had spent so long in the company of Pam and Meryl that his tattered old red flag had long since turned a dull shade of grey. Whether he was up to the job is unlikely to have entered the equation.

The Independents may not be the brightest lamp posts in the street, but they have always had a grim determination to keep their gnarled old fingers on the levers of power. And so it was that Pam Palmer sold the keys to the municipal limo for a very high price: half the seats (and "senior salaries") on the Executive Board, a Deputy Leader's salary for Pam and a stranglehold on the Council Leader.

What Pam and the Independents got was significantly out of proportion to their numbers. If board seats were allotted on the basis of votes actually cast in council elections, the Independents would have three, or at most a generous four, out of the 10 seats available. Not bad going for a party which does not even bother publishing a manifesto to tell voters what it stands for and is a completely talent-free zone.

And so it came to pass that Emlyn Dole closed his eyes and thought of Sir Gâr as he consummated his marriage to Morticia Palmer, in return for support from her and her political Addams Family of assorted mad aunts, Uncle Festers, Things, Itts, Lurches and an ageing Puggsley (Giles Morgan).

Quite what the marriage contract says remains a secret, but it would be reasonable to assume that in return for that very generous settlement, Emlyn Dole could at least rely on Pam to provide votes to make sure that key coalition and council policies are delivered. Even if, as we saw in the previous post, Pam is not always sure quite what it is she is voting for.

Apart from the hideous, toe-curling moments whenever she gets up to speak, Pam had at least delivered the votes until last week when she and Jane Tremlett (Ind., Laugharne) abstained in a vote at the final meeting of the Executive Board for 2016 on 22 December.

This is highly unusual if not unique in the recent history of Carmarthenshire County Council where pre-meeting meetings are held to iron out any differences so that the public and press can be treated to a show of choreographed unanimity as the municipal rubber stamp is applied.

There would almost certainly have been a hat-trick of Independent abstentions if Meryl Gravell had turned up, but as so often she was detained on business more urgent than carrying out the job for which she is handsomely paid. Shopping at Leekes, perhaps.


The main item up for consideration on 22 December was a consultation on the future status of the primary school in Llangennech, and a decision whether to recommend plans to phase out the current dual stream set-up in favour of what will technically be a new Welsh-medium school.

Just as with previous council meetings, a hard core group of objectors turned out, having tabled a series of questions for Gareth Jones, the member responsible for education. The same old questions, reheated and rejigged from the same objectors, and Cllr Jones politely and patiently jumped through the same hoops as before. He even managed a smile.

Unless you had read the consultation reports and spoken to other parents who live in Llangennech, it would be easy to imagine that the group which attended last Thursday's meeting represent the prevailing mood in the village. That is emphatically not the case.

The objectors long ago dug themselves in with deeply entrenched views that no amount of reason will shift, and their cause has attracted the usual extremists.

Part of the problem is the legacy of misleading terminology and past fudges which Carmarthenshire shares with other local authorities. The misunderstandings run so deep that meaningful dialogue is impossible. Dual stream schools were always a fudge, and they do not produce bilingual children or deliver a bilingual education.

But post-factual politics are as alive and virulent in Llangennech as everywhere else. As Michael Gove almost asked this year, who needs experts when you've got Pam Palmer on hand?

None of this was in the slightest bit unexpected, but no sooner had the objectors had their say than up popped Cllrs Pam Palmer (Ind., Abergwili) and Jane Tremlett (Ind., Laugharne) to praise the objectors and then abstain in the vote.


The remaining Independent pair (Jim Jones and Mair Stephens) both voted with their Plaid coalition partners, although given that Mair Stephens is the council's "Welsh Language Champion", anything other than a vote in favour would have looked very odd indeed.

With seven votes in favour, two abstentions and no votes against, the recommendation will now go before the full council on 18 January. What will happen there is anybody's guess because both the Labour and the Independent groups are deeply divided when it comes to the language. If councillors are given a free vote, the proposals will almost certainly pass.

Back in 2014, and in common with all other councillors bar one, the current leadership of both groups (Pam Palmer for the Independents, and Jeff Edmunds for Labour) voted for a package of measures which included a commitment to moving all of the county's primary schools along the so-called language continuum, and Llangennech is the first school to move.

That there should be opposition is no surprise. Over the county border in Cardigan there were very vocal protests when Ceredigion County Council proposed phasing out the English stream in the town's primary. The change went through, the clamour subsided and none of the objectors' fears or dire predictions were realised.

The difference between Cardigan and Llangennech would seem to be only that local government elections are approaching, and Pam, Jeff and their supporters have decided that there are votes in turning the language into a political football.

Last Thursday's debacle should now prompt Emlyn Dole to consider the future of his deputy and one other board member who refuse to support a key council policy.




Sunday, 18 December 2016

Strictly Slurry (Updated)

It has been a very long time, but with Mrs Cneifiwr ensconced in front of the box for last night's marathon Strictly finale and a homework assignment on the county's Local Development Plan which couldn't be put off for much longer, Cneifiwr decided to seek alternative entertainment by tuning into the webcast of last week's meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council.

There was no glitterball in sight, and some of the performances would definitely not have received a "Ten from Len". This being the last monthly meeting before Christmas, it was, unlike previous years, a remarkably sober occasion with not a whiff of jollity in the air.

Missing in Action

First up we had the role call of absentees, or at least those councillors who had got around to sending in an apology. The chief executive intoned a long list of names, most of whom should have been sitting on the Labour benches. Around a third of the Labour group had not bothered showing up for a meeting which covered a lot of topics which would be of concern to their voters, including social care, water, access to social housing, the environment and the Local Development Plan.

The list did not include Cllr Keri Thomas (Lab, Tyisha) whose attendance record over the last 10 years must rank as one of the worst for any councillor anywhere in Wales. If he was in the chamber, Cllr Thomas was keeping a very low profile.

Keri Thomas is due to stand down at next May's elections, but by nominating the much younger Rob James  to represent Lliedi ward, the Labour Party is clearly determined to continue the Thomas absentee tradition.

Young Rob is currently a councillor in Neath where his attendance record has almost been as poor as Keri's.

As we were to see a little later in the meeting, having virtual councillors on its books who draw a full salary and turn up to just enough meetings to avoid being struck off is quite a sensible tactic for Labour, because at least they won't embarrass the party leadership by singing from a different hymn sheet.

On the other hand, Mr James told us that Cllr Tegwen Devichand (Lab, Dafen) would not be gracing the meeting with her presence, so perhaps she had employed a body double because someone looking remarkably like Dafen Dolly sat scowling on the backbenches, furiously chewing gum. There like some latterday Lady Macbeth, she had squeezed in next to the corpse of poor old Kevin Madge, whose career as council leader she had so brutally terminated.

Not only did a lot of Labour councillors not bother showing up, but the Labour group had not bothered to exercise its right to table questions for the governing Executive Board. Just as in Westminster where we need an effective opposition more than ever, Labour in Carmarthenshire has given up trying.

For readers who think Cneifiwr is off on another rant against Labour, he later found himself shouting a Len Goodman "SE-VEN!!!"  after some not half-bad contributions from Kevin Madge and Calum Higgins. Well, it is Christmas, after all.

Dad's Army

Carmarthenshire County Council operates a Buggins' turn system of appointing a Chair who is supposed to fulfill the role of First Citizen and ensure that meetings of full council are, in the words of the constitution, "a forum for the debate of matters of concern to the local community and the place at which councillors are able to hold the executive board and committee chairs to account".

The constitution adds that it it the chair's duty to "uphold the dignity of the office at all times". That is the theory, but in practice for every good or half decent office holder, the system tends to deliver several complete duds such as Ivor Jackson (Ind) and Daff Elmer Fudd Davies (Ind).

According to rumour, Labour was supposed to have nominated the saintly maverick (and now sadly deselected) Bill Thomas, but Lady Macbeth and friends put forward Eryl Morgan instead. Eryl (Lab, Bigyn), may well be a very nice man, and he looks the part if your idea of local government has not moved on since the 1940s. He would make a very good understudy for the role of bumbling pin-striped town clerk in Warmington-on-Sea being bossed about by Captain Mainwaring.



At the end of each item on the agenda, the chair is supposed to read out the next heading, such as "6.3 Annual Report of HM Inspector of Sewers". Eryl just sits there staring blankly into space to the sound of coughing from the floor until a whisper from stage left (the Chief Executive, Mark James) gives him permission to speak.

Eryl is not waving but drowning, and his incompetence only serves to strengthen the hand of the over-mighty chief executive who last week popped up at every conceivable opportunity, and spoke more than any of the 74 councillors who nominally run the show.

Scymraeg

Up before the council were two motions, Cllr Alun Lenny's proposals for a compromise in the Jacqui Thomas case having been vetoed on completely spurious grounds.

Cllr Siân Thomas wanted the council to consider adopting a new policy to ensure that in future all public signs on council-owned property should not only be bilingual but also be written in correct Welsh (or English, for that matter) and verified by the council's translation unit.

This followed the unveiling of a war memorial in Llanelli which included an inscription written in garbage. Cllr Thomas pointed out that this was disrespectful to those being commemorated as well as the Welsh language.

Not very controversial, you would think. The dire results of cutting corners by using Google Translate and non-Welsh speakers armed with dictionaries to come up with attempts at Welsh have caused embarrassment to more than one organisation, as Tesco in Aberystwyth could testify:

Is that a bank card in your pocket, or are you just pleased to see me?

But dog-whistle politics are in vogue in Llanelli where sections of the Labour Party have decided that attacking the Welsh language may be a vote winner, and so the lugubrious Labour leader, Cllr Jeff Edmunds, intoned that he was not against Jews, immigrants, the Irish, Gypsies the Welsh language, but the motion was disrespectful to the people who had raised money to pay for the new memorial.

The thinly populated Labour benches behind him disagreed, and Cllrs Calum Higgins and Terry Davies (Lab, Ammanford faction) intervened in support of the motion. "SE-VEN!!"

Given the apparent strength of his feelings against the motion, you would have thought that Jeff Edmunds would have voted against it, but when the vote came all of the Labour councillors present voted in favour of it and against their "leadership", with Jeff Edmunds and Lady Macbeth lamely abstaining.

Donald Trump

Later in the meeting, councillors turned their attention to Carmarthenshire's Local Development Plan, adopted two years ago but out of date even before it received the rubber stamp, as Cllr Alun Lenny (Plaid) helpfully pointed out.

This was the first annual monitoring report, and one question which went unasked might have been why it took the planning department a year to come up with its first report on a plan which had been in place for two whole years.

The plan provides for a massive splurge of house building across the county on the back of population and household forecasts which everyone except the Welsh Government and planning departments across Wales knew were wildly wrong, long before the LDPs which are based on them completed their tortuous journeys.

What the report shows is that the numbers of houses being built fall far short of the official targets. In practice, this means that the LDP is little more than a charter for big developers to cherry pick sites, with the interests of existing communities disregarded in the scramble for quick profits.

Cllr Lenny pointed out that the plan was due to be reviewed a couple of years from now, and he hoped the review would reconsider the need for badly needed smaller developments in rural areas, before adding, rather gloomily, "if we are all still here".

Rising from his uncomfortable perch next to his assassin, Kevin Madge (Lab) pointed out that a great deal had changed since the LDP was adopted. There was Brexit for starters, and then Trump. The council should meet to come up with a plan to deal with the new world order. "SE-VEN!!"

Thin-skinned as ever, the chief executive appeared to take this as criticism. The council had plans, lots of plans, very good plans, plans for anything you could care to think of, and these plans involved billions of pounds to be spent in the long-term. They were, in fact, long-term plans, he declared.

Warming to his theme, Mr James was off. He had recently been up to London, not to see the Queen, but to present some of his plans in Whitehall. He had also been to Cardiff presenting plans for the Swansea Bay City Region, which of course include Meryl's Wonderful World of Wellness. Who knows, perhaps he will shortly be on a plane to New York to bid for a Trump Tower in Llanelli.

Nobody was rude enough to point out that the track record of Mark James's "won't cost you a penny" plans did not exactly inspire confidence, even if we overlook the minor problem that all of his current stock of plans pre-date both Brexit and Trump.

At that point, something must have caught Mr James's eye from the floor because he generously invited the council leader, Cllr Emlyn Dole (Plaid) to say a few words. If he hadn't, no doubt the carping critics would have said that this council was as officer-led as ever.

Slurry

Of the two motions before the council, the first dealt with the EU Nitrates Directive under which one of the options is something called the Whole Designation Territory Option. This would limit the times at which farmers could pump slurry onto their fields in an attempt to reduce run-off and pollution of our rivers.

Before the motion could be introduced, Mark James invited his legal eagle, Mrs Linda Rees Jones, to say a few words. Her long statement boiled down to saying that it was all very complicated, and that any farmers in the chamber might like to withdraw because under another daft interpretation of the rules on declaration of interests, they might run the risk of being in breach of the code of conduct.

A fairly large contingent withdrew, removing just about everyone who might know what they were talking about from the debate.

Cllr Gareth Thomas (Plaid) introduced his motion and would have outlined his proposals for an alternative to the Whole Designation Territory Option, but someone must have prodded the chair, Eryl Morgan, into cutting him short.

Several councillors declared that they did not know enough to be able to make a decision, and the way was open for a spectacular contribution from Carmarthenshire County Council's Executive Member for Ignorance, Cllr Pam Palmer (Ind).

No matter what the topic, you can always rely on Pam to stand up and make a rambling, unprepared, completely uninformed and usually bad tempered contribution, while calling for a return to good old-fashioned common sense.

Pam is one of the council's two deputy leaders, and she is paid very handsomely for whatever she does. The council's own records showed that in 2014 and 2015 she raked in a whisker under £75,000 on top of her pensions. She has sat around the top table in the council for pretty much the entire period since Carmarthenshire re-emerged from Dyfed, and must have been paid hundreds of thousands of pounds during that time. Her rag bag of mostly meaningless job titles includes "Community Planning" and "Rural Affairs".

Fair enough that she does not know a great deal about slurry management or the Nitrates Directive, although a more diligent councillor might have taken time to read up before taking the floor in County Hall.

Pam's ignorance went much, much deeper than that.

"I thought we'd had Brexit", she declared, wondering why anyone was still fussing about EU Directives, which she appears to think can now just be ignored.

We can only assume that our Executive Member for Rural Affairs and Deputy Council Leader does not read a newspaper (although perhaps she takes the Daily Express) or follow the news. If she did, she would know that while Brexit may mean Brexit, and while it may be red, white and blue, purple with yellow dots, hard, soft or medium boiled, we are still a long way off from Brexit, and all of the Directives she would like to ignore are likely to be the law of the land for a long time to come. That would include various directives which underpin areas of council policy for which she is responsible, including (laughably) Bio-diversity and Sustainability.

Update 19 December

Thanks to Anon for drawing attention to another example of the value Pam Palmer brings to public life. In the October meeting of the Executive Board members were asked to consider a report on the council's new programme of building affordable housing. Pam wanted to know what powers the council had to control letting rights. "Obviously, we provide the land...I just want to know what control we have over the letting of those houses".

Confused looks all round until it emerged that Pam thought the council was talking about housing associations, whereas this was the council's flagship housebuilding scheme, as she would have realised if she had read the report she was about to vote on.

Anywhere else there would be calls for the resignation or dismissal of a senior figure so obviously way out of her depth.

________________

But all is not doom and gloom.

The Welsh Whisperer, whose brief run of bizarre shows on Radio Beca was much enjoyed by Cneifiwr, is apparently about to join Radio Cymru from Môn FM, where he presents the "Drive Time Show".  For anyone not familiar with the Whisperer, imagine Val Doonican after eating cupcakes containing an illegal herb.

Just in time for Christmas, the Whisperer has released a new album of songs containing all manner of delights. Titles include Clic, Clywch y Cneifiwr and Loris Mansel Davies as well as what is destined to become a classic track: Ceidwad y Beudy ('Keeper of the Cowshed'). It includes the following immortal lines which must surely have been composed with Pam in mind:

Dyma gân am ferch sy'n deall ei slyri
Troi'r caeau yn fôr o garthion
Gwrtaith yn cwympo o'r nen

(Here's a song about a girl who knows her slurry,
Turning the fields into a sea of excrement,
Manure falling from the heavens)

Unfortunately we don't have time to cover this month's corporate Powerpoint presentation from Dŵr Cymru - Welsh Water, that well-known not-for-profit utility whose chief executive, Chris Jones, was paid a pitiful £768,000 in 2015. If there should be a vacancy any time soon, perhaps Mark James can be persuaded to go for it.

And so Strictly has come to an end for another year, and with any luck it will be another year before Cneifiwr is inspired to write up another council meeting.




Friday, 16 December 2016

Mr James's Legal Glacier


Poor old Ötzi collapsed and died of his injuries high up in the Alps, and it took nearly 5,000 years for his mummified remains to reappear. The British legal system, not known for bringing matters to a speedy conclusion, moves at a gallop in comparison, and the last week has seen some interesting developments in the Jacqui Thompson case, with one long-buried grizzly exhibit being disgorged at the foot of County Hall's very own glacier and giving off a distinctly unpleasant odour as it lies alongside two other pieces of legal detritus.

Pyromaniac

The exhibit in question takes the form of a statement issued by the council chief executive to councillors explaining his decision to send an inflammatory piece attacking Jacqui Thompson and her family to the Madaxeman blog for publication back in 2011. This extraordinarily vitriolic piece was written in response to widespread criticism of Jacqui Thompson's arrest for filming a small snatch of a council meeting, and it triggered the libel case.

After it was sent, Councillors were provided a copy of the blogpost along with the following brief statement:


You may have received a letter from Mrs Jacqui Thompson, furthering her continued campaign against the Council. Members have asked that a response be sent to Mrs Thompson.  Please find attached a copy of a response which was sent to a blog site supporting Mrs Thompson.  This sets out the Council’s position succinctly.

This should have come as a surprise to most of the 74 councillors who would have struggled to recall asking Mr James to write to the Madaxeman. 

The Madaxeman is a blog written by a man called Martin Milan who lives in Yorkshire. Martin's interests are wide-ranging, and include the NHS, software development and, occasionally, cases in which the full weight of the law has been thrown against unfortunate individuals for very trivial reasons. The Twitter Joke Trial had previously been the subject of posts on his blog.

Jacqui Thompson's arrest for filming was triggered by a complaint made by Cllr Pam Palmer, the leader of the "Independent" group on the council which not for nothing has often been described as Mr James's political wing. Cllr Palmer felt violated by being filmed in a public meeting of the council. If children enjoyed legal protection from being filmed and photographed, so too should county councillors, she argued, somehow forgetting that five year olds don't put themselves up for election to public office and run councils.

Jacqui Thompson's arrest triggered a huge amount of negative publicity for the council, and attracted the attention of the London press. 

This has always been one of the central paradoxes of Mr James's very long rule in Carmarthenshire: for someone who has invested huge sums in building up the council's PR machine and gone to extreme lengths to silence criticism of his council, Carmarthenshire County Council has gained one of the most tarnished reputations of any local authority in the UK. And there is some pretty stiff competition out there.

If Mr James had received requests from councillors asking him to respond to Jacqui Thompson, why did he choose to write to the Madaxeman instead? And why on earth did he chose that blog when he could have picked up the phone and dictated copy, as was his wont on many other occasions, to the Carmarthen Journal and Llanelli Star which, unlike Martin Milan's excellent blog, were actually read by people in Carmarthenshire? 

Mr James's views would also have been welcomed by other, more august publications, such as the New Statesman, where David Allen Green, now a columnist on law and policy for the Financial Times, had been extremely critical of both the county council and Dyfed Powys Police for their handling of the affair.

All of these widely read and influential publications were disregarded in favour of an obscure blog, and papers released by the council ahead of the libel trial show that in penning his piece, Mr James hunkered down with a select group including the then Head of Law and Administration, Lyn Thomas (responsible for inserting the unlawful libel indemnity clause into the council's constitution) and the head of the council's press office, the source of numerous attacks and smears over the years against council critics including Members of Parliament and Assembly Members.

There is in the documents released nothing to show that the resulting fire bomb was ever authorised by anyone apart from Mr James himself, but that single act has continued to reverberate down the years and inflict damage on the council.

A more cynical commentator than Cneifiwr might conclude that the Madaxeman statement was deliberately inflammatory and intended to provoke a response which would escalate matters further. If that was the case, Mr James succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.

Councillors who ponder why the council has got itself into this mess, should ask themselves whether the council's interests were best served by seeking confrontation when a more moderate and diplomatic response would probably have laid the filming controversy to rest.

Perverting the course of justice?

The most damning and damaging passage of Mr Justice Tugendhat's verdict in the libel trial was that Jacqui Thompson had lied about the sequence of events which took place in the public gallery at County Hall in April 2011. This, he concluded, amounted to an attempt to pervert the course of justice, and it was that finding which resulted in Jacqui's insurers revoking their cover.

In his recent comment on Facebook, Cllr Alun Lenny refers to this finding, and it is fair enough that anyone reading the verdict would take this at face value.

What does not emerge from the verdict is the background to the witness statement which was the basis for Mr Justice Tugendhat's ruling..

Following Cllr Palmer's complaint, a hapless council officer was dispatched to the public gallery to remonstrate with Jacqui Thompson. As anyone familiar with County Hall in Carmarthen will be able to testify, not only is it impossible to see the whole of the chamber from the gallery, but those sitting in the chamber have a less than perfect view of the gallery. 

So what ensued came down to the word of one individual against another, with Jacqui Thompson alleging that her arm was grasped and her phone snatched from her.

For his part, the council officer changed his statement twice, producing three differing accounts of what happened. Surprisingly, perhaps, from being rather uncertain, his memory improved with each successive account.

It would be outrageous to suggest that the officer was in any way coached or leaned on to change his story. Suffice to say that he works for the current Head of Law, Mrs Linda Rees Jones, who as we know was appointed to her role by Mr James himself and appeared as a witness in the trial.

The standard of evidence required in civil cases such as this is much lower than it would be in a criminal prosecution. Beyond reasonable doubt it was not, and yet the consequences for both Jacqui Thompson personally and the council financially and reputationally have been little short of catastrophic.

Contempt and "not meeting the criteria"

The attempt by Cllrs Alun Lenny (Plaid) and Cefin Campbell (Plaid) to table a motion proposing a compromise which would allow the Thompsons to continue to live in their home was, as we know, blocked.

The official fiction as relayed by the council's Press Office to the Carmarthen Journal is that the somewhat bewildered looking council chair, Cllr Eryl Morgan (Lab), came to the conclusion after rigorous examination of the council's constitution that the motion submitted by the two Plaid councillors did not meet the criteria for a Notice of Motion:


"The chair of council has confirmed that he ruled the notice of motion as submitted was inadmissible, because it did not meet the criteria set out in the council's standing orders."

Meanwhile, the two Plaid councillors were told by Mrs Rees Jones - Cllr Morgan being apparently unable to speak for himself - that the motion might run the risk of being in contempt of court, and that anyway, they had been extremely discourteous to poor old Eryl by sharing their thoughts on the matter with the public before the chair had been told what to say  formed his own opinion.

Those familiar with council meetings presided over by Mr James and Mrs Rees Jones will recognise this "make it up as you go along" approach to the rules.

This is all the council's standing orders have to say about the criteria for Notices of Motion:

12.3 SCOPE

Motions must be about matters for which the Council has a responsibility or which affect the wellbeing of the administrative area of the Council.

Bearing in mind that the council funded the entire libel case and is now having to live with the consequences, it is hard to see how the proposed motion could fail to meet the criteria described. But in this matter, Mrs Rees Jones, as Monitoring Officer, is the font of all wisdom. As so often in the past, it seems reasonable to conclude that she must have been reading from an entirely different rule book.

As for the suggestion that the motion could leave the council open to charges of contempt of court, a learned friend of Cneifiwr's described the idea as being, in that well known legal phrase, "utter bollocks".

The council has through the courts gained control over the Thompson home, and Mr James has gone on the record as saying both that he is not interested in the money, and that he would give his damages to the council (although he told the Carmarthen Journal that he might give the loot to good causes).

The only way that the High Court would consider whether the Lenny-Campbell proposal constituted contempt would be if the council's chief executive applied to the court to ask it to rule on the matter. 

In other words, it seems that Mr James, speaking through Mrs Rees Jones, is threatening the council with court action. If so, it would not be the first time, it being understood that Mr James brought in the lawyers when the council was considering suspending him pending investigation of the unlawful pensions and libel indemnity allegations.

The compromise eventually agreed was that he would voluntarily "stand aside" during the investigation. And not long after that he put in an application for redundancy which turned out to come with a very high price tag.

Mr James has now been chief executive for 15 years, which is rather longer than the vast majority of senior officers stay in post in either the private or the public sector. Many councillors are still in denial, but the tantrums, threats and control freakery are all classic signs of an abusive relationship which has to be terminated.

Meanwhile, the legal glacier will carry on disgorging more gruesome remains in the run-up to next year's council elections and beyond.