Monday 23 July 2012

Legal News (2)

Carmarthenshire County Council may be struggling in this age of austerity to find money for schools (at least in less favoured parts of the county), road repairs, libraries, museums and a whole host of other services, but there appears to be plenty left in the pot when it comes to keeping London's fat-cat lawyers in clotted cream and caviar.

We learned from Caebrwyn recently that the council is funding the chief executive's libel case out of its own resources, rather than resorting to its insurers.

In recent months the council also reacted very angrily to attempts by residents groups in Llanelli and Llandovery to seek judicial review of the council's decisions on the Stradey Park housing development and Ysgol Pantycelyn. Although the chief executive told the press that he was unable to comment on the Towy Community Church bowling alley project during an election, he nevertheless had no such inhibitions when it came to attacking the Stradey Park and Llandovery groups and warning that the council would seek to recover its costs.

This was because the Stradey Park and Llandovery disputes involved council policy, he helpfully explained. Presumably the council's £1.4m plus funding package to the church is not council policy. But I digress.

Another issue on which the chief executive found himself unable to comment was the BBC's Taro 9 programme documenting the appalling saga of abuse of an adult with learning disabilities at a council-run day centre in Johnstown, just outside Carmarthen.

Complaints about the council's management of the affair found their way to the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales, who delivered a damning report (here) back in 2009. Although the case revolved around one particular victim, it was acknowledged that the abuse was widespread.

As is usual for such reports, the local authority found itself obliged, with gritted teeth, to publish the findings on its website, although you may have missed that if you blinked.

Carmarthenshire Council has been keeping the Ombudsman busy ever since, and he has now completed a 130-page report on a complex case involving planning enforcement (or lack of) and the council's Kafkaesque complaints procedures. This involved, among other things, putting the couple who initiated the original complaint on the Council's Persistent Complainers list without telling them, and they are now understood to be suing the council for defamation as a result.

Caebrwyn reported here on the flurry of correspondence leading up to, ahem, non-publication.

We learned that the Ombudsman, Peter Tyndall, had responded to a request for information from the Minister for Local Government, Carl Sargeant expressing his frustrations:

I can confirm that we have experienced difficulties with the Council in respect of complaints handled by my office. These include delays in responding to requests for information, delays in commenting on draft reports and lengthy delays in implementing my recommendations.

I drew my concerns to the attention of the Chief Executive some time ago and requested a meeting to which he has failed to agree. I now intend pursuing this matter with the Leader of the council.....

Mr James is a very busy man, of course, but it will not improve the Ombudsman's mood whenever he reads the Western Mail, Carmarthen Journal and other publications, including of course the Madaxeman blog, to find that the chief executive has time to express his views there but none for Mr Tyndall.

Now, in the latest development, the Council appears to have rejected the Ombudsman's new report, and is seeking judicial review (just like the Stradey Park and Llandovery groups). Fancy that!

It is unlikely that the chief executive will be packing a copy for relaxing pool-side reading this summer, but the Ombudsman is understood to be keen for the council's leadership to provide the elected councillors with copies to while away the dog days of August.

Perhaps the Council will agree to this request, but the track record suggests otherwise.

Cneifiwr would be interested to hear from anyone who knows whether any other Welsh councils have ever sought to challenge the Ombudsman's findings in the courts. As things stand, it appears that Carmarthenshire may once again be boldly going where more timid authorities have not ventured before.

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