Thursday 23 February 2012

More letters - another victim of bullying writes

The scene: a large, plush office somewhere in Cardiff Bay. Seated behind a desk and staring into the distance is a large, angry-looking man squeezed into a dark suit.

A gentle tap on the door interrupts the day-dream.

"Morning, Pomeroy," booms the minister, Carl Sargeant (for it is he). "What's in the in-tray today?"

"Not very good news as usual, I'm afraid, Minister. More press cuttings saying this government is a waste of space and isn't doing anything, and another sackful of letters from...cough....Carmarthenshire. People complaining about the council again, I'm afraid."

The minister's lip quivers, and he reaches into his drawer, pulling out a large bottle marked 'Valium'.

"Oh God, not them again. Just because I look tough and am a minister and that, doesn't mean that I can take on that bloody council."

"I know, I know," says the civil servant soothingly. "But I really think we have got to write some sort of reply."

The minister takes another handful of pills and mops his brow. "I just can't take any more of this," he sobs. "Before you know it, I'll have that horrible Gravel woman on the phone."

"Gravell, Sir".

"Whatever. Or that nasty bossy sidekick of hers...Potter."

"Palmer, Sir".

"Or that creepy little lawyer bloke. You know, the one that looks and sounds like Michael Howard".

"Indeed, Sir. May I suggest, Minister, that I write something to say how dreadful this business is, but that we are powerless to act?"

"Would you, Pomeroy? Just say that I was very busy, or something, and that you are replying on my behalf."

Within days, the letters go out, and in them Mr Pomeroy explains why it is sometimes reasonable for councils to fund actions for defamation when they are brought against councillors or officers of a council.

Fair enough, the good citizens think, although the 2006 regulations to which he refers are extraordinarily generous to councillors and officers in that they appear to provide for indemnities even when the councillor or officer concerned has not acted in an official capacity. Writing angry tirades on blogs called "Mad Axeman", for example.

Mr Pomeroy, whose job title is Head of Local Government Improvement (he must be a very busy man), continues:

However, our 2006 regulations do not allow a local authority to grant an indemnity for initiating a case of defamation (that is, libel or slander). To quote the guidance which accompanied the regulations, “The Assembly Government does not believe that individuals should be funded at public expense to bring [defamation] proceedings against a third party. To do so could stifle legitimate public debate.” 

I cannot comment on whether any debate was stifled in this case; but our position remains the same.

That does not mean that the Council’s action is unlawful, as it is likely that the Council can rely on more general powers to grant this indemnity. If so, I am afraid that we have no grounds for challenging the Council’s decision or directing them to reverse it. But it must be for the Council to justify the decision it appears to have made, and the basis for doing so.

So there we have it; the Welsh Government specifically told councils they should not fund libel cases against third parties, but Carmarthenshire did it anyway.

The more general powers, to which he refers, basically boil down to a single sweeping clause in the 1972 Local Government Act which says, in effect, that councils may do anything they like in the discharge of their duties. So there!

Of course, this is not the first time that Mr Sargeant has waved the white flag to Carmarthenshire. Last year he tried to get councils to sign up to a compact to get them to cooperate more closely in the fields of education, waste management and social care.

Meryl Gravell boasted openly that she had released her own Sir Humphrey onto the government types in Cardiff, and he had succeeded in tying them in knots with a welter of amendments. The resulting Compact meant, she crowed, that nothing would change, and in response to one nervous councillor who pointed to what the agreement actually said, she trumpeted, "Just because we have signed up to something, doesn't mean it will happen."

More Valium for the Minister, I think.

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