Friday, 28 February 2014

Council Crisis: A QC and some cops

As the dust settles after yesterday's truly dreadful council meeting, Cneifiwr can report that County Hall today received a visit from Gloucestershire Constabulary who left with two boxes of documents.

Meanwhile a freedom of information request has gone in asking how much Mr Timothy Kerr QC was paid for his jaunt to Carmarthen yesterday. The council's finance department said a couple of weeks ago that they were expecting a bill of between £6,000 and £8,000 for the visit.

That comes on top of the hundreds of hours of officer time which have been spent on the pension and libel indemnity scandals, the cost of the libel litigation itself, the specialist legal and financial advice which the council took, much of it after being told that it had acted unlawfully, and the loss of contracted out national insurance rebate. Although the pension scheme has since been rescinded, it seems that the council is either unwilling or unable to claw back the £25,000 or so Mr James received as a salary "supplement". It also seems not to have decided to ask for repayment of almost £30,000 paid out under the unlawful libel indemnity.

Add that little lot together, and there will not be any change out of £100,000. All for one man, and all wasted.

After the envelope stunt played in Pembrokeshire, Mr Kerr's performance in Carmarthen was altogether more low key. Things got off to a bad start when his presence was challenged by Cllr Emlyn Dole (Plaid) who had been doing his homework by reading the council's constitution. His conclusion was that Mr Kerr had no more right to be in the council chamber than an ordinary member of the public who wanted to ask a question of the Executive Board.

It has been years since a member of the public exercised their right to ask a question in County Hall. Hardly surprising when you examine the procedure, which makes Indiana Jones's adventures look like a Sunday afternoon stroll. Needless to say, Mr Kerr would have found himself joining the skeletons of intrepid members of the public before him, dangling from a spider's web of impenetrable sub-clauses in his quest to ask his question (no follow-up questions allowed, naturally).

Fortunately for Mr Kerr, the rules were brushed aside after Labour and Independent councillors voted to allow him to stay.

Having got that out of the way, Mr Kerr turned to rubbishing the Wales Audit Office's reports, and answering "questions", principally from Cllrs Meryl Gravell and Pam Palmer.

Cllrs Gravell and Palmer are not in the habit of asking questions because they know the answer to everything, and what we got was a little routine which had almost certainly been practised beforehand.

Having declared that people who had spoken to the press had brought the council into disrepute, Meryl asked the QC to explain once again what guidance the Welsh Government had provided on the 2006 Order.

Mr Kerr duly trotted out his view that the Order prohibiting councils from indemnifying actions for defamation did no such thing. Meryl could have followed that up by asking what was the point of the 2006 Order in that case, but she didn't.

Pam Palmer (Ind) was interested in a case involving Bedford Borough Council which she believed showed that councils have a duty to protect officers (it doesn't), while Cllr Sue Allen (Ind) wanted to know what constituted "exceptional circumstances". The law does not provide a definition, Mr Kerr replied, and so it was up to Meryl and Co to decide as they saw fit.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this was that Cllr Allen broke her Trappist vow of silence and proved to the world that she can actually speak.

Having performed a few of these routines and sat twiddling his thumbs for the rest of the meeting, Mr Kerr left for London at lunch time.

We will see what the FOI request produces, but Mr Kerr said nothing that was not already stated in advice to the Executive Board at a cost which probably works out at around £2,000 per hour.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Turkeys voting for Christmas

With the public sickened by the behaviour of the top brass at Carmarthenshire County Council, the county's name dragged through the mud, senior politicians from all parties horrified by the goings-on, a police investigation and the possibility of lots more courtroom action, the Labour and Independent coalition voted to carry on as usual, kicking whatever they could into the long grass.

The arguments put up in defence of the council's leadership were a mixture of denial, the daft, and the deluded. Carmarthenshire has escaped unscathed from the effects of the recession thanks to the policies pursued by the Executive Board and senior officers, according to one councillor, while according to another our council is admired by other local authorities across Wales.

One of the unsolved mysteries for the public is why Labour in Pembrokeshire are calling for the suspension of the council's chief executive and the dismissal of the council leader for the unlawful pension arrangements, while Labour in Carmarthenshire sees nothing wrong with an identical scheme which one opposition councillor today described as a scam, although it confessed to a few procedural irregularities.

Kevin Madge (Lab) emerged looking relieved, while Meryl Gravell (Ind) and Pam Palmer (Ind) looked very pleased with themselves throughout, firmly convinced that their honour and integrity remain fully intact.

Demonstrating what great value we get for our money, the manager of the council's notorious press office was ensconced alongside councillors on the Independent benches for the entire meeting (around the 5 hour mark), scribbling the occasional note and glaring up at the public gallery where sat the press, bloggers, police (the Gloucestershire Constabulary in plain clothes doing a recce) and an unusually large contingent of the long-suffering public.

Without a doubt the unhappiest person present was Labour's student councillor, Calum Higgins, who is smart enough to realise that he had just watched whatever hopes he had of representing Carmarthen East and Dinefwr in Westminster swirl down the pan.

One of the more memorable moments took place outside the chamber when a pensioner challenged the poor old reporter sent along by the Carmarthen Journal. 

"I don't know why you bothered coming when the paper will end up printing the council's press release", she taunted him.

Cneifiwr will be working over the weekend, but this blog will examine some of today's more interesting contributions in a post next week, including some new pearls from Kev and Meryl.

Meanwhile, here is a statement just put out by the Plaid Cymru group on the council:

Plaid Cymru has slammed Labour and Independent councillors in Carmarthenshire for backing council leaders who’d just admitted they’d acted unlawfully in aiding their Chief Executive to avoid paying tax.
The council’s Executive Board crumbled under constant Plaid pressure by accepting a Wales Audit Office report that they’d acted unlawfully in arranging for Chief Executive Mark James to receive a £16,000 salary supplement in lieu of pension contributions, in order to pay less income tax. Mr James is currently away from work pending the outcome of a police inquiry into the Auditor’s report.
But despite the Executive Board’s admission a Plaid Cymru motion of no confidence in the council’s Leader, Labour’s Kevin Madge, former Leader Cllr Meryl Gravell and present Independent group leader Cllr Pam Palmer, was defeated at an Extraordinary meeting of the council today.
“The Labour group and the so-called Independents voted en-bloc to support their discredited leaders,” said Plaid group leader Cllr Peter Hughes Griffiths at the end of a heated five-hour debate in County Hall. “A serious error was made by the Executive Board in 2012 on the pensions issue, but no-one will be called to account. This is a disgraceful state of affairs, which is sure to further damage the council’s reputation. Indeed, the public have every right to be outraged by the council’s behaviour.” 

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Councils in Crisis: What the papers say

As Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire county councils edge ever closer to melt-down, and the clock ticks down on tomorrow's extraordinary meeting in Carmarthen, here is a handy guide to what the local press is saying.

South Wales Guardian

"Future of council leader hangs in balance"

And in a separate opinion piece:

"Leader Kevin Madge and two other senior figures are the subjects of a Plaid no confidence motion. Rather than blindly obeying party lines it is vitally important that each and every member coolly weighs up all the evidence put before them before deciding where to cast their vote"

Pembrokeshire Herald

"Votes of no confidence in senior [council] officers"

"Grants fraud rocks council"

Western Telegraph 

"Motion of no confidence in Pembrokeshire County Council chief exec Bryn Parry-Jones to go before full council."

"EXCLUSIVE: Assembly Member Angela Burns - it's time for the chief exec AND the council leader to stand aside."

Llanelli Star

"Man arrested after indecent exposure at Asda"

Carmarthen Journal

"Photographer debuts unique snapshots of Laugharne"

In other exciting news, the Journal announces the launch of a new fitness blog written by Tara Hammett. The lovely Tara, featured wearing black lace underwear while wrapping her hand in a bandage, apparently in preparation for a round in the boxing ring, will be introducing her TARAnsformation (geddit?) programme to help "educate, inspire and motivate so many TARAnsformers to shed inches, eat well and feel the fittest ever".

Meanwhile over on Twitter the paper's editor was excited by last night's edition of Y Byd ar Bedwar, although not for the reasons you might expect. The burning question she most wanted answered was what had happened to Rhodri Glyn Thomas's "swish leather biker jacket".

Council Crisis: The end of the road?

The South Wales Guardian speculates (here) that Kevin Madge's stint as leader of Carmarthenshire County Council could be about to come to an end as D-Day looms.

Councillors will vote tomorrow on a motion of no confidence in him, Meryl Gravell and Pam Palmer. Together they have presided over the erosion of democracy in Carmarthenshire, hidden behind a wall of secrecy and been responsible for decisions which have brought shame and disgrace on our council.

All the indications are that the vote will be very close, and support for Kevin Madge is believed to be crumbling.

The votes tomorrow are likely all to be recorded to allow people to see where their individual councillors stand. As Jonathan Edwards told the Guardian, "there will be no hiding place for those councillors that vote to ignore public sentiment and keep the regime in place".

Council Crisis: Y Byd ar Bedwar

For anyone who enjoys a bit of old-fashioned and honest investigative reporting, last night's edition of Y Byd ar Bedwar was a classic. Kevin Madge's performance on camera is likely to be used in PR training courses for years to come as an example of how not to do it, while the little vignette with the chief executive, Mark James, claiming that the press office had not passed on ITV's request for an interview, was eloquent testimony to the culture that he has developed in County Hall.

On a personal note I suppose I had better declare an interest in all this as I pop up in the programme a couple of times. Ever since I agreed to act as a witness in Jacqui Thompson's trial (although the judge refused to hear my testimony), the council has known who I am as have many others including most of the media, the exceptions being those who see their role as an extension of the council's press office rather than giving a voice to the ordinary people of this county. Deciding to emerge from obscurity for a few minutes and go in front of the cameras was therefore not so difficult, but that was not the case for everyone who took part.

Cllr Siân Thomas deserves special praise for her contribution. She occupied the chair of council for a year, and her wit and warmth shone through despite the bullying and dictatorial treatment she was subjected to. Hers was the real voice of Carmarthenshire in the programme, and I hope more will now follow her lead.

If you missed it, the programme can be viewed for a couple more weeks here.


Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Council Crisis: Thursday's Meeting (Updated)

In the run-up to the Extraordinary Meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council on Thursday intensive preparation and lobbying of councillors is taking place. Labour councillors will be subjected to a strict party whip to vote against Plaid Cymru's motion of no confidence in Kevin Madge and his two Independent allies, Meryl Gravell and Pam Palmer. Huge pressure is also being applied on the Independents not to desert Meryl in her hour of need.

The Plaid Cymru group will call for a recorded vote so that the public can see for themselves how their councillors vote. The prospect must be giving several of them sleepless nights because all of the indications are that there is real and raw anger among the public about what has been going on at the top of our county council.

Mrs Linda Rees Jones will stand down as Monitoring Officer for the duration of the meeting. The monitoring officer serves as the guardian of the Council's Constitution and the decision-making process, and is responsible for advising the Council on the legality of its decision and providing guidance to the Councillors on the Council Constitution and its powers.

Update (10.44am)

Her place will be taken by her deputy, Robert Edgecombe. Also on hand to provide "appropriate" advice will be Mr Timothy Kerr QC who recently effectively took over as monitoring officer in Pembrokeshire's recent notorious extraordinary meeting. Mr Kerr has been advising the leadership of both councils on their response to the Wales Audit Office's ruling that they had acted unlawfully. His bill for attending the event is expected to come in at a very reasonable £6,000-£8,000.


It is understood that Mr Kerr himself may now be facing a formal complaint of misconduct for his handling of the meeting in Haverfordwest, and in particular for his part in an ambush which saw opposition members withdraw from the meeting.

For those of you who cannot get enough, S4C is due to screen an edition of Y Byd ar Bedwar at 9.30 tonight looking at the background to the scandals. Cneifiwr understands that the programme makers rounded up a motley collection of malcontents, repeat-offenders and general trouble makers for the interviews.

The meeting itself will begin at 10 a.m. in County Hall, and will be broadcast live (here). The council's webcasts have suffered quite a few technical problems recently, and it is likely that the grim public gallery will be packed for the event, with journalists, the public and what Mr James once described as "scurrilous" members of the blogging community jostling for a front row seat. Fights may break out upstairs as well, particularly between the semi-house trained representatives of the local press.

Doyen of the press pack is the BBC's beefy Aled Scourfield, and Cneifiwr's money is on him to emerge triumphant from any scrummage.

Cneifiwr will unusually be enjoying a day off, and taking along a sharpened pencil and supply of Xtra strong mints.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Making Enemies

Back in November Peter Hughes Griffiths, leader of the Plaid group on Carmarthenshire County Council, called on Kevin Madge to allow councillors to discuss plans to introduce drastically higher charges for council-owned sports facilities, and he noted that this announcement had come hard on the heels of revelations that the council had just given another huge injection of public money to Parc y Scarlets.

Kevin Madge went bonkers:

"The answer is no, no, no, and erm, you know, we get to the stage here now, you know, on these subjects, especially the Scarlets, and you know, and, erm, we want to play political ping pong with this one, you know............You ran away from the Ffwrnes, erm, seminar. You've used politics for the last two weeks saying that you're not part of the administration....... So, you know, your group can go on and on and on about these decisions. As I've said all along over the years, we've made those decisions and made tough decisions. And I am proud of what has been achieved here, and what has been done with the Scarlets. They've asked us for a little bit of help here, and we've supported them. Now is the opposition saying, let's pull them down and make everyone redundant then. No, you're not saying that, are you? No, but on the other hand. No, no, no. And I will take the legal advice here. 

As Kevin Madge knows, this was not political opportunism by Peter Hughes Griffiths but a plea from a man who has spent most of his adult life working with young people in sport.

The row has rumbled on ever since, and has grown more intense now that rugby, soccer, cricket and bowls clubs around the county have woken up to what the council is doing. For many of them this could be the end of the road as they will no longer be able to afford to use council pitches for training and games.

To its credit the South Wales Guardian has reflected public anger and covered the story in depth (sad to say that its competitors appear to see their role as reflecting the views of the council rather than their readers), but a game changer was probably a recent edition of Taro'r Post on Radio Cymru which highlighted the strength of raw public feeling.

At last week's council meeting Cllr Glynog Davies (Plaid) referred to the programme and warned Kevin Madge and the rest of the Executive Board that they were making enemies of the people of Carmarthenshire. He begged them to reconsider.

It fell to Cllr Colin Evans (Lab) to defend the party line. Reiterating what Kevin Madge has been trotting out since November, Cllr Evans argued that the hikes in charges were all about fairness and trying to reduce the gap between costs and income for these sports fields. The deficit is around £250,000 per year.

A recent freedom of information request showed that the council spent £120,000 on hiring conference facilities and various events at Parc y Scarlets in the period between October 2012 and December 2013. The last event listed was a "Leadership Conference" held at the stadium on 3 December 2013 at a cost of over £2,500.

All of that comes on top of the much larger cash injections the club received from the sale of the council-owned car park next to the stadium and the latest debt restructuring. £280,000 was gifted just to cover the cost of fitting out the Red Room in the Eastgate Centre.

Not to mention the evangelical bowling alley at Johnstown where Towy Community Church has been given nearly £1.4 million in cash, grants, subsidies and soft loans.

Recently Kevin Madge has found himself on the wrong side of a lot of controversies. His plans to remove backbench councillors' powers to decide whether or not to close schools ran into opposition on his own benches, and he had to back down.

He has vetoed proposals to pay council staff a living wage and other proposals to adopt a no-evictions policy for victims of the bedroom tax. His latest budget includes an attack on trade union facilitation time, something which will make it much harder for the unions to protect their members.

His support for Mark James has been unwavering ever since the Wales Audit Office published its public interest reports and triggered intervention from Labour HQ in Cardiff and criticism from Labour MPs and AMs.

Now Kev's campaign for what he calls fairness and a level playing field for village sports clubs has run into trouble with Nia Griffith, Labour's MP for Llanelli. Realising that she was unlikely to get a hearing from Kevin Madge, the MP has bypassed him and his Executive Board and asked Deryk Cundy (Lab), chair of the council's Regeneration and Leisure Scrutiny Committee to investigate the policy as a matter of urgency (South Wales Guardian story here).

Better late than never, perhaps, but as we saw at the beginning of this piece, Peter Hughes Griffiths was warning about this three months ago. By the time Deryk's committee gets round to looking at the problem, it may well be too late for many of the clubs.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Council Crisis: Extraordinary Meeting

Carmarthenshire County Council has published the agenda for next Thursday's extraordinary meeting to discuss the pension and libel indemnity scandals.

Mark James may have left the building, but there is no sign that the council is about to wave the white flag and back down in its war with the Wales Audit Office.

Indeed, the tone of the reports prepared by officers for the meeting is wholly unrepentant. The report on the libel indemnity was co-written by acting Head of Law, Linda Rees Jones, and for reasons which are not clear by Roger Jones (Director of Resources).

The Libel Indemnity

The documents published with the agenda add little to what has already been released, although they include for the first time a copy of the legal advice sought by the Wales Audit on the libel indemnity. The covering report also reveals that Mr James is now funding his defence of Jacqui Thompson's appeal himself.

Not released is the legal advice provided by Adam Speker, Mark James's barrister. The report prepared for councillors persists in citing Mr Speker's opinions as though he were an independent source of legal advice rather than someone being paid to act for one side in a lawsuit. Using the same yardstick, the report should also have set out the views of Jacqui Thompson's counsel.

It states that the WAO report makes no allegations of misconduct by members or officers, although neglects to mention that after reading the two public interest reports the police and Crown Prosecution Service felt that an investigation into possible criminal wrongdoing was justified.

Mrs Rees Jones also points out to councillors that under the constitution, officers have delegated powers to approve indemnities, and they did not actually need to ask the Executive Board at all.

However, because they recognised that this escapade might just be a little bit controversial, they took matter to the Executive Board, then headed by Meryl Gravell with Kevin Madge as deputy, and Pam Palmer as another leading light. The Executive Board, as we know, was so enthusiastic that according to Mrs Rees Jones it decided it did not need any further legal advice, and so rubber stamped the legal action.

Mrs Rees Jones has therefore rather neatly reminded everybody that they were all in it together.

Also not released is the complete correspondence between Mrs Rees Jones and the WAO. Readers may remember that the WAO described an earlier release of e-mails as "selective", and that Kevin Madge has been promising to put everything on the table.

The council's justification for the libel indemnity rests almost wholly on an interpretation of one sentence in the Explanatory Notes to a Welsh Assembly Order which says that the powers granted by the 2006 Order are in addition to any existing powers.

The council is interpreting this, it seems, to mean that when the Welsh Government expressly forbade indemnities for council officers bringing libel actions, it was giving councils a new power.

Next time you tell your children or grandchildren that they are not allowed to wreck the house, try telling them that what you are really doing is giving them new rights and freedoms. Well, at least it will confuse them, just as it will some of the befuddled councillors on the Independent benches.

The Pension Pay Supplement

This arrangement, branded unlawful by the WAO, has now been withdrawn. It is not clear whether the money paid to Mark James will be clawed back.

The documents released include a fairly short report produced by a company called Total Reward Projects Ltd based in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex recommending the pay supplement. This was presented to the Executive Board with a covering report produced by assistant chief executive, Paul Thomas. Mr Thomas's report concludes that there are no legal implications in implementing this new policy (presumably on the advice of Mrs Linda Rees Jones). Oops.

Unlike their colleagues in Pembrokeshire, councillors in Carmarthenshire will also be allowed to see the legal advice provided by Mr Timothy Kerr QC dealing with the pension pay supplement. At least, they will be shown some of it, because councillors in Pembrokeshire were told that there were two separate pieces of advice produced in September and November 2013.The only document attached to the Carmarthenshire report is dated September.

How all this will all pan out on Thursday we shall see, but in reality the important decisions will not now be taken in Carmarthen, but by the Gloucestershire Constabulary and the Crown Prosecution Service.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

A Good News Budget (II) Updated


A couple of the comments on this post point out that all Welsh councils are facing cuts, and suggest that this blog is being unduly partisan in criticising the Labour-Independent administration in Carmarthen. West Wales News Review provides us with a timely reminder why Carmarthenshire is in a league of its own.


After warning everyone that there would be cuts of biblical proportions, Kevin Madge's PR strategy has switched to talking about areas of council spending which will not be cut. Anyone reading the report put out by the most recent Executive Board meeting might be forgiven for thinking that the council's budget proposals were all about saving care homes and lollipop ladies rather than cutting services.

Here are just some of the cuts voted through by the Labour-Independent coalition on Wednesday. The figures show the anticipated 3-year saving.
  • Cutting back further on highway maintenance (£3.24m)
  • Transferring Home Care Services for the elderly to the private and/or voluntary sectors (£1.5m)
  • Transfer Day Centres for elderly to charities (£700,000)
  • Cut back on street lighting (£606,000)
  • Make schools pay to use leisure centres (£525,000)
  • Increase charges for school meals (£500,000)
  • Cut spending on road sweeping and de-littering (£350,000)
  • Reduce spending on assessing children with special needs (£300,000)
  • Reduction in bridge maintenance work (£267,000)
  • Reducing the number of children going into foster care (£250,000)
  • Increase and extend charges for social care (£200,000)
  • Cut day services for people with learning disabilities (£175,000)
  • Cut community and mobile library provision (£141,000)
  • Introduce charges for Blue Badge holders (£109,000)
  • Increase car parking charges (£105,000)
  • Cut spending on youth services. Carmarthenshire already has the lowest spend in Wales. (£100,000)
  • Reduce bus subsidies (£100,000)
  • Reduce training and employment support for people with learning disabilities (£100,000)
  • Cut spending on Citizens Advice and welfare rights (£97,000)
  • Cut trade union support (£85,000)
  • Reduce road condition surveys (£83,000)
  • Cut spending on Welsh language schemes (£60,000) The total budget is £216,000 over 3 years.
  • Introduce charges for car parking up to 9pm. (£55,000)
  • Reduce opening times for Newcastle Emlyn swimming pool (£35,000)
  • Cutting support for after-school childcare (£33,000)
  • Cut back on CCTV monitoring (£30,000)
  • Abolish the council's school transport appeals panel (£30,000)
  • Reduce Carmarthenshire News from 6 to 4 issues (£20,000)
  • Cut environmental enforcement (dog fouling, abandoned cars, graffiti, etc.) £19,000
In addition to these cuts to frontline services, the budget includes a raft of proposals labelled "managerial and efficiency" savings. These cover a huge range of items and include the deletion of posts - overwhelmingly at lower pay grades.

Winners and Losers

The cuts will hit everyone across the county, but some will be hit harder than others. The decision not to close any care homes in the Ammanford area and the sudden discovery of an unbudgeted £7 million to fund an "Extra Care" facility in Llanelli were highly political gestures, undertaken to shore up Labour's vote in those two areas.

For rural areas there is nothing but pain, and most people in Carmarthenshire live in rural areas. There is already a 7-year backlog on road maintenance, and that will grow worse. Cutting mobile libraries, day care centres, bus subsidies, abolishing the school transport appeals panel and slashing the road maintenance budget will all hit rural communities hard.

The Big Picture

Overall council spending is set to fall slightly over the next three years from £339m in 2013/14 to £332m in 2016/17, although that masks some significant changes when broken down to the level of individual departments. Technical Services (refuse collection, roads, etc.) will see its budget drop from £47m to £43m over the same period. Social Care and Housing will go from £79m in 2014/15 to £71m in 2016/17. Education and Children's Services spending will stay flat at £160-£161m.

The Exception to the Rule

The one exception to this is the Chief Executive's department, which will see its budget grow from £8.3m in 2013/14 to £17.5m in 2016/17.  The Chief Executive's department includes the council's press and PR operations, the legal department, HR and functions such as business planning and "performance improvement". Nowhere in the vast amount of documentation put out by the council is there any clear explanation why this department will be more than doubling its money when everything else is being cut.

The Politics

Several rabbits were pulled out of the hat to stifle dissent in Kevin Madge's Labour group in the run-up to a budget settlement which included an attack on union representation in the council. Not one Labour councillor raised any concerns about this at Wednesday's budget meeting.

In fact very few Labour councillors had anything to say at all, apart from Kevin Madge and other members of his cabinet. The sole exception was Anthony Jones who was given nearly 10 minutes (the 5 minute rule is normally rigorously applied by the chair) at one point to set out his support for the overall settlement.

Anthony Jones has his eye on Kevin Madge's job.

Over on the Independent benches there was complete and total silence, apart from members of the Executive Board. Despite representing rural communities and claiming to be independent-minded, not one of them spoke, and they all voted with Labour to push the package through despite the damage it will inflict on the people they represent.

Friday, 21 February 2014

A Good News Budget (I)

Earlier this week the Labour and Independent groups on Carmarthenshire County Council pushed through one of the harshest budget settlements in living memory, with swingeing cuts to frontline services, a 4.77% rise in council tax, job losses and sharp increases in charges.

If you read the statements put out by the authority, however, you would have been left with a very different impression. Care homes threatened with closure have been saved; there will be no charges for school transport for children over the age of 16 (at least not this year); the lollipop ladies have been saved and there will be no cuts in respite care for disabled children. All this thanks to our far-sighted local authority working on our behalf.

What the council has done is to talk about services which will not be cut (they will just be squeezed), while glossing over the bad news. And there is a great deal of bad news out there.

Before we dig into some of the detail, it is worth having a look at the budget process itself.


This kicked off with an invitation only event in the Ffwrnes Theatre in Llanelli. In addition to the elected councillors invitations went out to what the council is calling stakeholders. These were for the most part  media organisations and companies.

Not many of those invited actually attended, with those who stayed away including the BBC which felt that the terms and conditions being applied could compromise its editorial independence. The media were in the end represented by the three Local World titles (Carmarthen Journal, Llanelli Star and South Wales Evening Post) which in recent years have become little more than mouthpieces for council PR, plus Radio Carmarthenshire.

Just three companies attended:  Castell Howell (the catering wholesaler), Schaeffler (ball bearings and precision engineering) and Tata Steel.

Plaid Cymru, the largest political group on the council, boycotted the event but sent observers.

What was left, then, was a collection of Labour and Independent councillors (not all of them turned up either), a few journalists working for organisations which are little more than extensions of the council's press office, and three companies. Those were the stakeholders, and it is clear from the budget documentation that the views of this very unrepresentative group played a big part in deciding the priorities for cuts.

Tata Steel, for example, was strongly in favour of cutting trade union facilitation time, and it also felt that the Welsh language "should be supported in the workplace, but not to the detriment of front-line services" (i.e. cut it and leave it to the tender mercies of organisations such as Tata Steel).

Interestingly, the breakdown of responses shows that the "stakeholders" (dinosaur Independents, Labour plus Tata Steel) were quite strongly in favour of cutting support for the use of Welsh, whereas people in the 16-24 age group were strongly opposed.

The Ffwrnes "stakeholders" were presented with a list of 51 proposals for cuts to public services, and that list also went out to a public consultation.

The Consultation

The public who took part in the consultation found that the list was headed for some reason not by items which would save most money, but by soft targets. Top of the list were getting rid of trade union facilitation time and cutting support for the Welsh language. The savings to be achieved were miniscule in the big scheme of things, but very damaging to those being targeted. Someone seems to have calculated that by putting these two very small populist cherries at the top of the list, the public might be more inclined to support cuts for less popular proposals further down.

No attempt at political balance was made in the short, accompanying explanations. Cutting union facilitation time would not affect union rights, we were told, while the cuts aimed at the Welsh language included reducing "excess" translation costs.

Apart from making it a lot more difficult for the unions to represent their members, the cuts once again target the very meagre support the council provides to the Mentrau Iaith which carry out a lot of valuable work in promoting social cohesion as well as the language.

On some items we get glimpses of the frustration felt by some of those who responded. "Insufficient information to provide an informed response", we read. The same response could have been given to just about all of the 51 proposals.

Just like the Ffwrnes event, the public consultation resulted in a ranking of priorities for cuts, with scores being allocated to each item.


Top of the pops for cuts with the highest combined score from the consultations was the council's propaganda sheet, the Carmarthenshire News.

Not on the table was scrapping the paper completely and replacing it with an annual information sheet, as Plaid Cymru has proposed. What we will get is a reduction from 6 to 4 issues per year.

Despite being the most popular target for cuts, the summary of responses provided by the council is headed:
  • Carmarthenshire News is an essential source of local information
  • Ensures all residents, including digitally excluded and elderly, are kept abreast of latest developments & events
The document goes on to suggest that mitigation could include "further collaboration" with the Llanelli Star/Carmarthen Journal. No mention is made of collaboration with media outlets which have dared to criticise the council.

Collaboration also dovetails very neatly into one of the main strategies of the Local World group (owners of the Journal and the Star), which is to allow councils and other cash-rich organisations to publish their PR and propaganda in return for advertising revenue.

A mysterious press release

Now here's a funny thing. A few weeks back the Carmarthen Journal published a lengthy attack on Plaid Cymru's budget proposals. The newspaper said this was the "Council's response" to the Plaid proposals, but it was not otherwise attributed. What was abundantly clear was that it was written not by Kevin Madge, but the supposedly politically neutral council officers he has been so busy defending of late.

Incredibly the article claimed that printing an annual information sheet would cost more than publishing 6 full colour, 40-odd page editions of Carmarthenshire News every year.

The subject came up in this week's council meeting. Who had written the article, Cllr Cefin Campbell (Plaid) wanted to know.

Kevin Madge tried to play outraged of Garnant. It was wrong to blame the chief executive for this, he blustered.

Cllr Campbell pointed out that he had not said that; only that the chief executive's picture had appeared above it. Who had written the article?

Kevin Madge did not want to reply, but then stood to say that the "Carmarthen Journal had put it out there".

That is only true if you interpret "put it out there" to mean "publish". 

The truth of the matter was that it was written by someone in the chief executive's department and put out by the press office. Quite possibly with Kevin Madge's blessing.

Coming high up on the list of popular targets for spending cuts was nevertheless not a guarantee that the council would actually implement the proposals. 

One of the proposals which scored highly with the public (but unsurprisingly strongly opposed by council staff) was a plan to start charging council staff for car parking outside council offices. That, along with reducing respite care for disabled children, was dropped from the list of cuts to be implemented.

So much for the spin. The next piece will look at what is actually being cut, and one or two areas in which spending is set to rise sharply.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Council Crisis: Benefits Street Chief Executive Style

Efforts to establish the precise terms and conditions of Mark James's decision to stand down from his duties as chief executive are continuing. What has emerged so far is that he will remain on full pay, which the South Wales Guardian reckons is about £15,000 a month.

Under the constitution he would be entitled to full pay for just two months under a suspension while allegations of misconduct are investigated, but it seems that by voluntarily agreeing "not to undertake his duties", he will continue to be paid in full.

If the case of senior council officers in Caerphilly is anything to go by, Mr James could be looking at a year or more as the most comfortable benefits claimant in Wales.

Mark James is Innocent OK

The Guardian notes that the council last week issued a press release in the name of Kevin Madge, and presumably the rest of the Executive Board, in which Mr James tells us that he has done nothing wrong. Under the Kerr-Ching rules applied in Pembrokeshire to exclude opposition members from a vote to suspend Bryn Parry Jones, that should rule out the 10 members of the Carmarthenshire Board from voting in next week's extraordinary meeting.

An Empty Diary

In addition to being council chief executive, Mr James has had a high profile in Cardiff, with many and varied duties. Simon Thomas (Plaid) yesterday received the following answer from the Welsh Government:

Simon Thomas (Mid and West Wales): What work does the Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council, Mark James, do for the Welsh Government – working groups, panels, committees, advice etc?

Lesley Griffiths: Mark James will be stepping aside from the various roles he performs for the Welsh Government. These include:

• Member of the Public Service Leadership Group as regional lead for the Mid and West Wales collaborative service area.
• Member of the 21st Century Schools Programme Board as representative of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives
• Chair of the Monmouthshire Education Recovery Board and
• Chair of the Welsh Government’s Central Services Corporate Governance Committee. 

A Freedom of Information request submitted last year cast a little more light on this:

"Mr Mark James is a Non-Executive Director (NED) on one of the Welsh Government’s Director General Corporate Governance Committees (DG CGC). 
Specifically, Mr James is a NED on the Central Services CGC. Mr James was appointed to this role in April 2010. Mr James was re-appointed to this role for a further 3 year term in June 2012.

The committees meet four times a year and members are also required to attend an annual training day. The Non-Executive Directors receive remuneration on an honorarium basis of £347 per day and travel expenses.  
Mr James has attended all meetings of the Central Services CGC since April 2010.

Mr James’ expenses for the period to March 2012 were:

1 April 2010 to 31 March 2011 - £3,281.00
1 April 2011 to 31 March 2012 - £2,320.50"

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Councils in Crisis: Three charged with misconduct in Caerphilly

The Western Mail has just broken the news that the chief executive of Caerphilly, his deputy and the former monitoring officer are all to be charged with misconduct in public office.

In Carmarthen, the Plaid Cymru group has confirmed that it has tabled a motion of no confidence in the council leader, Kevin Madge (Lab), former leader Meryl Gravell (Ind) and deputy leader and leader of the Independent group, Pam Palmer, at the extraordinary meeting to be held on 27 February.

It has also been confirmed that Mr Timothy Kerr QC, affectionately known to some readers of this blog as Mr Kerr-Ching, will be attending the meeting at a cost understood to be in excess of £6,000.

Peter Hughes Griffiths, the Plaid leader, said there was no need at all for Mr Kerr to come to Carmarthen to waste more public money defending the indefensible.

For those of you who can't wait for next Thursday's meeting, the council will be meeting in public tomorrow to approve the budget for 2014-15. Expect lots of talk from Kev about making the 'ard decisions while his pet ostriches run around in the sand.

The text of the Plaid statement announcing the motion of no confidence follows.


At next week’s Extraordinary Meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council ( Thurs. 27 Feb) to discuss a damning Wales Audit Office report, the Plaid Cymru opposition group will present a motion of no confidence in three senior councillors. The issue is already the subject of a police inquiry and the council’s Chief Executive has agreed to ‘stand aside’ pending its outcome. Following a meeting last night of the 28-strong Plaid group on the county council, their leader Cllr Peter Hughes Griffiths, made this statement.
"It’s unbelievable that Chief Executive Mark James was not immediately suspended once the police inquiry was announced. Council Leader Kevin Madge dithered and dallied until the situation became totally untenable. Even then, we only had a ‘compromise’ agreement. We still don’t know the conditions relating to Mr James’ ‘standing aside’.  The press have been told by the council that Mr James remains on full pay, although they’ve told us – as elected members - nothing.That said, the important thing is that the Chief Executive is out of the frame until this issue is resolved.
Plaid Cymru will fiercely resist any attempt at interference in a democratic debate and vote on this most important issue at next week’s extraordinary meeting to discuss the Wales Audit Office report. We will not be dictated to by London QC Timothy Kerr, who, when he appeared in Pembrokeshire council chamber last week, acted as monitoring officer for the Executive Board by naming councillors he believed should not take part in the debate due to having made allegedly prejudicial comments in the press. We maintain it is Mr Kerr who should not be allowed to participate in any debate. Indeed, he need not come to Carmarthen at all. Although we’ve not been given the actual sum, it’s believed that Mr Kerr will be paid at least £6,000 for attending the meeting on the 27th to give advice. Plaid believes this is an irresponsible and unnecessary waste of taxpayers’ money. The Executive Board are throwing good money after bad in their stubborn defence of the indefensible, being the Welsh Auditor’s ruling that they acted unlawfully in two matters.
Their arrogant attitude compounds the original ‘offence’ and shows why council Leader Kevin Madge should stand down. At the council meeting on the 27th Plaid will present a Notice of Motion of no confidence in Cllr Madge, past Leader Cllr Meryl Gravell and present deputy Leader Cllr. Pam Palmer on the grounds that all three were members of the Executive Board that made the decisions deemed ‘unlawful’ by the WAO."

Council Crisis: Rebecca Evans AM wades in

The fallout from the farcical meeting in Pembrokeshire on Friday continues, with Rebecca Evans, the Labour AM for Mid and West Wales, calling for chief executive Bryn Parry Jones to be stripped of his role as returning officer in the elections to the European Parliament to be held this May "until local councillors are allowed to have a proper debate and police investigations are concluded".

"The public must have complete confidence in the election process, and in all of the people involved. Until  the police investigation is concluded, alternative arrangements must be made – and that means relieving Bryn Parry Jones of his Returning Officer role", Ms Evans told the Western Telegraph.

For an elected politician from a major political party to say that public confidence in the election process could be undermined if Mr Parry Jones is allowed to continue as returning officer is a mark of just how low public confidence in local government in this part of Wales has sunk.

Michael Williams, who leads the Plaid Cymru group on the council, has called on the Welsh Government to send in commissioners to run the county, the BBC is reporting. Cllr Williams said there was an urgent need for intervention after Friday's meeting.

In Carmarthenshire, Mark James also enjoys a very lucrative sideline as returning officer in elections. It will be recalled that in 2012 he paid himself £20,000 in expenses, almost two months in advance of the local elections under one of Carmarthenshire's "special arrangements".

Whether Mr James will also step down as returning officer is not clear, but what is abundantly clear is that he has lost the confidence of a very large proportion of councillors and the public.

Labour councillors in Carmarthenshire who were going around saying that this was all a Plaid vendetta and just newspaper headlines might want to talk to Rebecca Evans.

Meanwhile Pembrokeshire County Council has released the archived footage of last Friday's webcast (here).

One of the most disturbing aspects of the meeting was the role played by the council's Monitoring Officer, who like all council officers is supposed to be strictly politically neutral. During the meeting it was revealed that Mr Harding had passed a collection of newspaper clippings and names of opposition councillors who had called for the suspension or resignation of the chief executive to Mr Timothy Kerr QC on his way to Haverfordwest.

Cllr Jacob Williams notes on his blog that deputy leader of the council, Cllr Rob Lewis, was caught on camera holding a copy of the material which had come into Mr Kerr's possession.

There is nothing to suggest that Mrs Linda Rees Jones, the Monitoring Officer in Carmarthenshire, has yet taken to handing envelopes to London lawyers in the back of council limos, but anyone watching her performance in council meetings during the last year might also have cause to wonder whether the roles of neutral, impartial Monitoring Officer and legal enforcer for the ruling junta have somehow got mixed up.

There are very few things the author of this blog would agree on with Meryl Gravell and Pam Palmer, but the decision to start filming council meetings was one of the biggest mistakes the ruling cliques in Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire have ever made. As Louis Brandeis, one-time Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court once said, "Sunlight is the best disinfectant".


Monday, 17 February 2014

Council Crisis: Dirty tricks and some correspondence - Updated

As we begin Week Three of the crisis sparked by the publication of the WAO's public interest reports, attention is now being focused on the precise nature of the chief executive's extended holiday/leave of absence/exile/voluntary suspension/temporary withdrawal from office, and the council is being asked to explain any terms and conditions that come attached to this mutually agreed arrangement.

A reader writes that he had never truly appreciated the power of the pen until he sent a letter to the First Minister, Carwyn Jones, late last week calling for the chief executive of Carmarthenshire County Council to be suspended. Within a couple of hours he learned that Mr James would be "stepping aside" to spend more time with his legal text books.

Llanelli AM Nia Griffith (Lab) also received several letters from concerned constituents, and to her credit they received a speedy response. The replies are similar, and include passages which regurgitate parts of an earlier statement issued by Labour's press office in Cardiff about getting the Welsh Local Government Association (Deputy Presiding Officer Kevin Madge) to carry out a review. She also makes it clear that she thinks the council should accept the WAO reports in full.

The really interesting bit comes in the middle where Ms Griffith tells her correspondents that:

In checking up on the procedures, I understand that the Leader has discovered that in Carmarthenshire County Council the Leader does not have the power to suspend the Chief Executive, but that this is a decision for full council. That is why you read in the Western Mail on Thursday that  he has asked him “to stand down voluntarily”.  I understand that the Leader will be taking this matter to full council. (technically providing he gets the support from the Executive Board  – support which will be forthcoming from the Labour members but I cannot speak for the Independent members) .

The council's constitution has been chopped and changed, amended and "improved" so many times in its short life that it resembles the sort of fence you see on some Welsh farms. A bit of old tractor here, a pallet or two there, some wire, a door and a great deal of bailer twine holding the thing together, and the effect of most of these enhancements is to say that the chief executive will decide what should be done.

On the subject of suspensions, however, this abused document is clear:

“The Head of Paid Service, Monitoring Officer and Chief Finance Officer may be suspended whilst an investigation takes place into alleged misconduct. That suspension will be on full pay and last no longer than two months. No other disciplinary action may be taken in respect of any of the above officers except in accordance with a recommendation in a report made by a designated independent person appointed by the Council’s Investigation Committee.” (Rules of Procedure, Officer Employment Rules)

The Head of Paid Service is the chief executive, by the way. Having dealt with suspension pending investigation of alleged misconduct, the constitution goes on to explain that dismissal requires the approval of the full council.

We can only guess that this interesting interpretation of the rules came from Mr James and Mrs Rees Jones, and that it was supported by Meryl, Pam and the rest of the Independent contingent.

The final bit suggests that Kevin Madge is or was planning to put a motion before full council to suspend Mr James with the proviso that it would have to be supported by the Independents. Hell is more likely to suffer a cold snap before that happens.



It seems that the rules which apply are not the council's constitution in this case, but a whole handbook dedicated to the conditions of service for local authority chief executives produced by the Joint Negotiating Committee for Local Authority Chief Executives (how many other jobs have an 88 page document setting out an employee's rights?). A copy last updated in 2009 can be found here.


And finally....

Back over in Pembrokeshire Cllr Jacob Williams has written a fascinating report on Friday's extraordinary council meeting, complete with its dirty tricks, stooges, envelope in the back of the limo and coup d'etat. 

For those of you like Cneifiwr who had not watched the whole 5 hours of action, an interesting new fact to have emerged is that Mr Timothy Kerr QC wrote not one but two separate legal advices to Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire in September and November 2013.

Pembrokeshire's councillors will now be allowed to see the documents, albeit in redacted form.