Wednesday 13 March 2013

Week In Week Out - Fat Cats and the WAO

The latest edition of Week In Week Out (available on iPlayer for another week here) took a fairly jaunty look at the pay of public sector bosses in Wales, and it will have had a lot of people gnashing their teeth in fury. Not one of the people featured was prepared to go in front of the camera to justify their exorbitant salaries and pay packages, although a Cardiff City councillor took the Meryl Gravell slot to argue that council chief executives and others are such a rare and precious resource that competition for them is forcing salaries up. If we want the best, we have to pay top dollar.

Somehow, that argument doesn't ring true when you remember that a good many of our top council officers have been in post for years and are cruising towards a gold-plated retirement, while swathes of the pond life in their charge are made redundant or have to claim benefits to try to make ends meet.

The way the programme was structured, picking out one name from each of the 10 sectors under review (NHS trust bosses, Quango bosses, council bosses, etc.) meant that viewers in Carmarthenshire were spared from hearing that our own chief executive easily makes it into the top 10 earners because his salary and benefits package is slightly less than that of the boss of Cardiff.

The programme came about because of the scandal at Caerphilly, where the council chief executive effectively awarded himself a massive pay rise. Had it not been for complaints from opposition councillors in the Labour-run authority and members of staff, it is unlikely that the Wales Audit Office would have had its slumbers disturbed.

The fact that the WAO did intervene probably owed as much to nervousness in the executive suites of our Welsh Winter Palaces at the sight of a spontaneous walk-out by Caerphilly council staff. With the peasants in revolt, the chief executive, Anthony Sullivan become suddenly expendable, and the WAO was dispatched with a blue flashing light.

The WAO's report found that

  • The meeting at which the salary rise was approved had not been publicised, and so members of the public did not have an opportunity to go along. In reality, of course, the council would have slapped a public interest exemption on the report and excluded the press and public from the meeting, but the WAO appeared to feel very cross that the matter had not appeared on a published agenda.
  • Equally shocking, the WAO found, was that Mr Sullivan failed to declare an interest and participated in the meeting.
Of course, this sort of thing could never happen in Carmarthenshire, although a spookily similar meeting of the council's Executive Board took place on 23 January 2012. The were various items on the published agenda, but they did not include a report and recommendation that the chief executive should be given public money to fight his libel action against Jacqui Thompson.

Nevertheless, the meeting approved the report and recommendation, and Mr James was handed a blank cheque.

It emerged in court recently that Mr James did not declare an interest, and that he participated in the meeting.

It remains to be seen what that indemnity was worth, but we can be sure that it will make Anthony Sullivan's pay rise look like loose change from the back of the sofa..

The indemnity was introduced as an "emergency item" according to the minutes of the meeting, something which will probably induce hollow laughter from various councillors who have tried to introduce emergency items in meetings of the full council during the last year, only to be blocked by the chief executive. Indeed, recently the chief executive took the precaution of removing "Any Other Business" from meeting agendas to prevent this from happening.

Bearing in mind that Mrs Thompson's writ was served to Mr James on 14 November 2011 and that three meetings of the Executive Board were held before the "emergency" on 23 January, you have to wonder why the indemnity proposal could not have been placed on an agenda in the usual way. But then, guess who is responsible for drawing up meeting agendas.

Mr Sullivan may well feel that he has been the victim of rough justice if the WAO does not now head west to Carmarthen.


Anonymous said...

The WAO should have headed west a long time ago. The question we need to ask is why haven't they?

Anonymous said...

I think I can hear the (albeit very distant) sound of some chickens coming home to roost at last!!

Delyth Jenkins said...

Talking about chickens coming home to roost, live debate in the Commons today about whistleblowing. At last it seems we are being taken seriously!

Delyth Jenkins said...

Excellent debate - the message, loud and clear is accountability.
Wonder if the Welsh Government will now intervene if the Council don't hold their own officers to account?

Tessa said...

Excellent post Cneifiwr!

Yes there are so many similarities between Carmarthenshire’s Emergency Item in Jan 12, and the Caerphilly situation that it must at least be queried?

Although who's going to haul the trembling WAO from where they're hiding in the toilets - and give them a shove to get going?

Not the council taxpaying public - as in Caebrwyn’s blog you will read the numerous times she and others have tried.

It must fall to the Welsh Assembly to shove the necessary rocket up the WAO where its needed.