Tuesday 11 February 2014

Council Crisis: Cardiff via Haverfordwest - Updated


Cllr Jacob Williams is reporting over on his blog that Mr Timothy Kerr QC, the author of the secret advice on the pensions scandal to both Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire county councils, will be abandoning the smart surroundings of the Inns of Court in London for what will no doubt be a very expensive outing to Haverfordwest, where he will take part in Friday's extraordinary meeting.

Let's hope the Welsh weather doesn't scupper his travel arrangements.

Meanwhile the "Independents" who run the Pembrokeshire have been closeted with their Tory MPs and AMs to discuss the WAO crisis among other topics.


Tomorrow will see the first meeting of the full council in Carmarthen since the storm over the auditor's public interest reports broke nearly two weeks ago. Provided the sellotape and rubber bands hold, viewers should be able to view the meeting online, and it promises to be one of the stormiest sessions for a long time, even for a council which is used to X-rated horror meetings.

Will those present be ordered to stand as the Chair and Chief Executive sweep in at the beginning of the meeting? Will the Chief Executive and Mrs Linda Rees Jones even be there? Will any angry spectators in the public gallery hurl rotten tomatoes at the podium? Will the plugs be pulled on the live broadcast? All that and much, much more beginning at 10 am tomorrow (link here).

For those readers like Cneifiwr who are unable to watch or attend, you should be able to view proceedings from Thursday afternoon.

If you cannot get enough of watching councils trying to navigate through stormy waters, another treat is in store on Friday when Pembrokeshire County Council meets to discuss the auditor's report on the pensions scandal. That should also be available to watch online here.

In preparation, Pembrokeshire County Council has published a report which will be the basis for the meeting (here).

This is a weighty document, and consists of the council's response to the auditor's public interest report, the public interest report itself, the council's lengthy response to the auditor's consideration document and various other appendices, more on which below.

The response to the consideration document at the end of November was drawn up, it is clear, with significant input from Mr Timothy Kerr QC, the counsel jointly employed by Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire county councils.

Mr Kerr's actual advice was withheld from the WAO, and the report going before councillors on Friday also fails to reproduce it on the grounds that it is privileged.

There are limits to openness and transparency, even at this late stage.

Unlike Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire is still sticking to its guns on the pension pay supplement, and argues that a decision to rescind it could have contractual implications because the council incorporated a clause enabling senior officers to opt out of the local government pension fund into their contracts of employment. It does say, however, that it will "revisit" its decision.

These are complex legal and financial issues, but what is beyond doubt is that the council's claims that the pension arrangements would not cost the authority anything were utterly untrue.

Having argued the case back and forth, the document then goes on to a glossy appendix containing advice commissioned from a firm called Chartermarque. This snazzy document begins with a picture of steel and glass skyscrapers and a picture of the author, a stern looking man in a suit. Many pages of text and tables follow.

How much that cost, we are not told. Nor are we told how much the apparently ongoing involvement of Mr Timothy "Genius" Kerr QC has cost.

In addition to that, we can safely add quite a few thousands more in respect of the countless hours spent by council officers and staff in meetings and putting together reports.

Add to that the involvement of yet another company which pops up right at the end of the document. This takes the form of an e-mail sent by a Mr John Livesey of Mercer UK, which is part of a US-based global financial services and employment consultancy firm.

Mr Livesey is replying to a question sent by an officer of Carmarthenshire County Council, and his response shows that the pension arrangement will also have cost the two councils money in the form of loss of contracted out National Insurance rebate.

Apart from showing just how closely the two county councils have been in cahoots on this issue, it also shows that Carmarthenshire's councillors and struggling tax payers have not been told the full extent of all the legal and financial advice the council has been shelling out for in defence of the chief executive's tax avoidance scheme.

No, no and no

On a slightly lighter note, Oggy Bloggy Ogwr has taken another look at the whole saga. Oggy is one of the best Welsh bloggers, and his latest piece ends with a snippet from the proceedings of the National Assembly's Petitions Committee where members were gobsmacked by a response they received from Carmarthenshire County Council.

At issue was a petition signed by more than 4,000 people calling for Stradey Park to be given listed status (the council is busy turning the site into an executive housing development).

When it first responded to the committee, the council's answer was just four words: "No, no and no".

When asked politely to reconsider and provide a rather less offensive reply, back came the council's Building Conservation Officer with an only slightly less surly six lines of text, saying "no".

Residents of Carmarthenshire who have been putting up with this sort of thing for years may permit themselves a grin as they see that the council is now not afraid to dish it out to the Great and Good as well as the rest of us.

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