Friday 17 August 2012

Carmarthenshire: it's complaints galore!

County Hall in Carmarthen may have resembled Sleeping Beauty's castle ever since the local government elections in May, with activity mainly confined to PR stunts such as the Executive Board's big day out in Ammanford and embarrassing attempts to use Olympic hurdler Dai Greene as a mascot, but the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales has found that the council has been keeping him busier than ever.

First we had a damning report from the Ombudsman into a case involving the council's planning department. As is usual in these cases, the Ombudsman sought a meeting with the council's Chief Executive as he was putting the report together, but his requests went unanswered. Perhaps the council's most senior officer (renumeration of almost £210,000 in 2011-12) was simply too busy with diary entries such as posing for a photograph to appear on the front page of the council's propaganda sheet, Carmarthenshire News.

Space in the Chief Executive's diary was presumably found, however, for a meeting with members of the legal profession who have been instructed by the council to challenge the Ombudsman's report in the courts.

There may also have been other meetings with learned counsel to discuss an action for defamation brought by the couple whose complaint was the subject of the Ombudsman's report. The couple were understandably less than pleased to find that they had been placed under special measures and branded "persistent complainants" by the council without being told what was being done to them.

Also placed under special measures by the Chief Executive were Councillors Siân Caiach and Arthur Davies who were banned last year from asking questions of any of the council's battalion of highly paid officers apart from the Chief Executive himself.

The two councillors also had a couple of motions critical of the council leadership vetoed by the Chief Executive. To prevent this sort of impertinence from happening again, the council's leadership then pushed through a change to the constitution requiring a minimum of seven signatures on a notice of motion (no other council has such a high barrier). Even if the requisite number of signatures could be collected, the Chief Executive retains powers to veto undesirable motions, just in case.

While all this was going on, the Chief Executive submitted a veritable snowstorm of complaints against Cllr Caiach to the Ombudsman alleging various breaches of the Councillors Code of Conduct.

You can read details of the complaints and the Ombudsman's dismissal of all of them over on Caebrwyn's blog here, as well as this piece in the Western Mail.

One of the cast of characters with a walk-on part in this unfolding drama is the council's chief press officer. The press office's way with words and its unfortunate history of attributing words spoken by one person to someone else has been noted before. On this occasion it appears that words spoken by a BBC journalist quoting Cllr Caiach were somehow taken out of context and made the subject of a complaint against Cllr Caiach.

The Ombudsman's report suggests that the Chief Executive should endeavour to be less sensitive to criticism, and his findings are a landmark in protecting rights of freedom of expression and open political debate in local government.

The council has said that it is studying the Ombudsman's report, and no doubt there will be more consultations with lawyers in County Hall to see whether there is scope for another legal challenge.

Meanwhile the convoluted libel case involving the Chief Executive and fellow blogger Caebrwyn grinds on, with costs escalating for each month that passes. It is understood that Mr James's London legal team recently ventured out to the windswept wastes that lie beyond the M25 and spent a day closeted in County Hall to discuss the case. For anyone who has ever forked out for an hour of air time with a London barrister, the thought of the cost of transporting a whole posse from London to Carmarthen for a day (and most likely overnight stays) will make their eyes water.

The case is still four months away from getting to court, but parts of it hinge on the sensitivities of Mr James, who it seems was particularly distressed by a reference in the offending blog to a character from a popular children's story. It is also understood that sensitivities may have been upset when Caebrwyn was less than ecstatic at the news that Mr James had been appointed a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire early this year.

A small digression here in order to educate my readership on the role of Lord Lieutenants (apparently that is the correct plural). Apart from wearing fancy dress and clanking around with swords at council annual general meetings, these relics also play a key role in advising the Queen (or rather a committee of worthies in Whitehall) on the suitability of people who have been nominated for gongs and appointments to non-existent posts in non-existent institutions. So now we know who to blame thank.

But back to the Ombudsman.

Among the welter of complaints, writs, judicial reviews and reports, Cneifiwr understands that the Ombudsman was recently asked to look into the circumstances of a meeting of the council's Executive Board in January of this year.

Not on the published agenda, but discussed and approved nonetheless was a report recommending that the Council provide the Chief Executive with an indemnity to fund both the defence of an action for libel being brought by Caebrwyn and an action against the blogger.

The minutes of the meeting record that such an item was discussed (and of course approved), although a public interest exemption was slapped on the whole affair, and the public was allowed to know only that an indemnity had been granted to an officer because of "exceptional circumstances".

It also appeared from the minutes that no declarations of interest were made, and that the officer concerned (it is reasonable to assume that this was the Chief Executive) remained present in the meeting while the report was presented and approved, even though he had a direct personal interest in the outcome.

Any councillors who acted in this way would most likely have found themselves accused of serious breach of the Councillors Code of Conduct and hauled up before a tribunal.

But council officers are different, and are subject to a different code. The well-meaning officials who drew up the Officers Code of Conduct almost certainly never envisaged that a council would blaze the sort of trail that Carmarthenshire is determinedly going down.

The Officers Code of Conduct envisages that there may be occasions when an officer should declare an interest, and it says that in such cases the officer should inform a more senior officer. What happens when the officer is the most senior officer is not explained. Presumably in such cases, the Chief Executive is expected to talk to himself.

In order to make a complaint to the Public Services Ombudsman, members of the public have to satisfy the Ombudsman that they have exhausted the complaints procedure of the relevant authority first.

You can bet on all sorts of things these days, but it is unlikely that Ladbrokes would have been willing to accept a bet that such a complaint to Carmarthenshire County Council would be rejected.

Just as complainants first have to exhaust the council's internal procedure, the Ombudsman also tells would-be complainers that he is powerless to investigate complaints against individual officers. No matter what they are alleged to have done, they may not be investigated by the Ombudsman.

Complainants may, however, make a complaint against a council as a whole, but then the Ombudsman may only investigate complaints in which a member of the public has suffered personal loss or injustice. Complaints against a council for failing its wider duties to the public are not part of the brief.

Of course this public spirited individual was doomed to failure from the beginning, because even if all of the other hurdles had successfully been negotiated (even Dai Greene would have struggled), the complainant would still have had to prove that the chief executive's presence at the meeting where his personal indemnity was discussed and approved had somehow been improper or resulted in maladministration. And since the meeting was held in behind closed doors, subject to a public interest exemption and recorded only in a brief written minute, such proof would have been rather hard to come by.

In other words, the council is adamant that there was nothing wrong about the January meeting, the Ombudsman is powerless to investigate, and the system ensures that officers are wrapped in cotton wool.

To end, here's a thought about the Councillors Code of Conduct, which is primarily concerned with ensuring that councillors should not behave in such a way as to bring their office or council into disrepute.

Carmarthenshire County Council certainly has a reputation. It has recently been the subject of several damning reports from the Ombudsman. It has been the subject of some hair-raising BBC documentaries. Stories of its shortcomings have been covered in the Western Mail, UK Press Gazette and other publications (although not in our muzzled local newspapers). And of course Carmarthenshire is becoming a regular feature in Private Eye's "Rotten Boroughs" column.

It seems our council is doing a pretty good job of dragging the county's reputation through the mud without any help from Cllr Caiach.


Anonymous said...

It is becoming ever more obvious that our Chief Executive has a very tight grip on everything and everyone; gagging orders and silencing methods the order of the day. Putin would be proud!

Anonymous said...

Very interesting Cneifwr. I have also heard that the council consider the funding for the litigation as part of their 'duty of care to employees', pity they weren't quite so considerate when it came to their duty of care to Delyth Jenkins.

Anonymous said...

With regards to "codes of Conduct" of our beloved Councillors, I wonder whether an audit ever been carried out into the numbers & details of complaints to Ombudsman that managed to escape investigation?