Monday 30 September 2013

Pembrokeshire signs off accounts despite pensions scandal

Pembrokeshire County Council's Corporate Governance Committee (the equivalent of Carmarthenshire's Audit Committee) today signed off the accounts for 2012-13 despite the auditor's warnings about the legality of the tax dodge pension scheme brought into help a couple of the council's top earning officers.

The vote was 7 to 6, with the ruling IPPG group winning the day over a united opposition. The Western Telegraph's report can be found here.

Pembrokeshire politics are bizarre to put it mildly, as anyone who has followed the chronicles of Old Grumpy will know, but the IPPG group is made up for the most part of Tory-leaning "Independents" plus a scattering of others who, Old Grumpy suggests, usually appear to have been enticed into the fold by the lure of special responsibility allowances.

Not much different to Carmarthenshire's so-called Independents who look and act just like a political party, but don't publish a manifesto or tell voters what they stand for.

The Carmarthenshire Independents are often referred to as the political wing of the council's senior officers, and it seems things in Pembrokeshire are not much different.

Sunday 29 September 2013

Spin doctors

Last week was a busy week for news in Carmarthenshire. On Tuesday the Health Minister, Mark Drakeford (Lab) announced that the accident and emergency unit at the Prince Philip Hospital in Llanelli would be downgraded to become a nurse-led service supported by doctors.

Except of course that he did not use the word "downgrade".

Of all the worries and concerns that people in this region have at the moment, the future of our health services tops the list. Llanelli is the largest town in West Wales, and campaigners have fought long and hard to try to protect services at Prince Philip. 33,000 residents signed petitions opposing the change, which has nevertheless been given the go-ahead.

They have now been given leave to seek a judicial review of the minister's decision. 

Simon Thomas (Plaid), AM for Mid and West Wales, has said that lifesaving services should be located as close to patents as possible, and that keeping the doctor-led A+E service in Llanelli is important. He is also worried that the Welsh Government has not considered the increased pressure that will be put on Morriston Hospital as a result of the changes.

Elin Jones, Plaid's Shadow Health Minister, said that her party would continue to oppose changes which were unsafe. If staff shortages were one of the factors which, according to the Welsh Government, had led to the need for reconfiguration, then recruitment was the solution.

Keith Davies (Lab), the AM for Llanelli, takes a rather different view. Changing from a fully-fledged A+E service to a nurse-led unit is emphatically not a downgrade, he says on his website, but is all about "upskilling" staff to provide a local service.

Whereas Simon Thomas was worried that sending patients to an overstretched Morriston was a recipe for trouble, Keith Davies's tells his voters,

"Let us not forget how important Prince Philip was during the last winter when Glangwili and Morriston were unable to cope."

Anyone who says otherwise, according to Keith, is guilty of spin.

Any Llanelli residents feeling dazed and confused after trying to grapple with Keith's logic are advised to take an aspirin and lie down in a darkened room.

A turkey heads home to roost

If the top brass in County Hall didn't have enough to worry about, the various poultry specimens which came home to roost last week seem set to be joined by a large and rather distressed turkey in the shape of Parc y Scarlets in Llanelli.

After discussing the libel indemnity and tax dodging pension arrangements, Friday's audit committee meeting settled down to ponder the dire finances of the Scarlets.

The auditor was critical of the council's exposure to a potential collapse of the club which could see the Parc y Scarlets stadium being seized by receivers on behalf of the club's creditors. There was also dismay from some members that the club has not contributed to the "sinking fund" for the last three years. That means that the upkeep of the stadium is not being funded.

Having left after the pensions and indemnity discussion, the council's Director of Resources, Roger Jones, had to be recalled to face questioning by the committee which was told that the next meeting of the full council in October would be presented with a report on the Scarlets' debt situation along with some suggestions put together by the council's officers.

One suggestion may be that  the council will ask the Scarlets to give back the ground lease and play "on license" so that the asset of the stadium itself is not lost to the council's tax payers if the club goes under. Since the lease shows up in the club's accounts as its only significant asset with a mind-boggling valuation of over £10 million, any change could have dramatic consequences.

The dire state of the club's finances has been public knowledge for several years, and it has only stayed afloat thanks to the generosity of a handful of wealthy private patrons and Carmarthenshire's tax payers. The dark warnings of the club's auditors about its viability as a going concern have been largely successfully obscured by a determined PR offensive, orchestrated in large part by the council itself, making hugely inflated claims about the club's contribution to the local economy, and a succession of hints, rumours and suggestions that a corner is about to be turned thanks in part to a mysterious Wunderwaffe.

The Wunderwaffe was in all likelihood the sale for £850,000 of land leased to the club on peppercorn terms by the council. We now know that the leasehold was sold to Marstons, with the club taking a hefty slice of the proceeds. Exactly what the council made from the sale remains a mystery, with the council refusing to disclose the information.

It is understood that the matter is likely to end up in the hands of the Information Commissioner.

With massive budget cuts looming the council's continuing generosity to the club will become harder and harder to justify.

It is not just the soft loans and land deals either, but a battery of hidden subsidies, such as the council's very heavy use of the stadium as a venue for meetings, hospitality and just about any other event in its calendar. Departmental budgets are regularly raided to pay to host events at Parc y Scarlets which could just as well be held for free or the cost of a few packets of crisps and sandwiches on council premises. Money which could be used to provide services to the public is instead being siphoned off.

But it's not all Parc y Scarlets. For no obvious reason tomorrow's meeting of the council's Executive Board is being held at the Botanic Gardens in Llanarthne where the ten members of the board and probably at least as many council officers will gather in the plush surroundings of Principality House.

These meetings usually last for less than an hour, and any members of the public planning to go along can expect to spend rather less time than that admiring the fixtures and fittings because they will be told to leave for the final item on the agenda. This concerns proposals for the development of the Gwynfryn site in Ammanford and something vaguely described as "cooperative housing in Carmarthenshire".

While all this is going on, the council's raggle taggle "Independent" group led by Pam Palmer is growing increasingly nervous, and a number of informal meetings of its various social groups have been taking place.

Pictures of the brooding fortress of County Hall appearing on news broadcasts with reports of scandals will not go down well with voters, but of even more pressing concern is the question of the official Independents' own collective and personal culpability.

Saturday 28 September 2013

Press Review


For a Pembrokeshire view of the pensions tax dodge scandal, take a look at the Pembrokeshire Herald (story here) and an excellent piece by Cllr Jacob Williams (here). Both cast an interesting light on the story, and Jacob Williams in particular raises a number of questions which are just as pertinent to Carmarthenshire.

When the Herald was launched it said it would refuse to play along with the cosy arrangements which have grown up between councils and the local press, which can be summarised as council advertising revenue in return for docility.

In Carmarthenshire things have gone even further, with the Carmarthen Journal in particular abandoning any pretence of editorial independence. The strategy which took final shape during the brief editorship of Jonathan Roberts is to shelter under the protective skirts of the county council in the hope that this will guarantee the paper's long-term survival. After all, so the thinking goes, are readers really interested in the goings on at their local council?

The Herald in Pembrokeshire and the South Wales Guardian in Carmarthenshire may well show their bigger rivals that independence and integrity offer a greater guarantee of survival.


The council pensions scandal in Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire and the Appointed Auditor's refusal to sign off Carmarthenshire County Council's accounts because of what he considers to be unlawful expenditure are big news, and have been hitting the headlines in BBC news bulletins. But what about the newspapers and online media read by people in Carmarthenshire?

The most obvious place to start is the council's own online news service. Carmarthenshire County Council has one of the largest press and PR operations anywhere in Wales, and it justifies these costly services by saying that they are needed to ensure the council gets decent and fair news coverage.

Carmarthenshire residents turning to the council's website to see what it has to say about events of the last few days will find nothing whatsoever about the audit row, but may perhaps enjoy reading

Winner Gavin meets Sid - star of the Cwmhendy Dog Show

No luck there, then. So what about the Carmarthen Journal? Log on to the newspaper's website, and star billing as "The Big Story" goes to a piece about police investigations into a case of alleged slavery at a farm between Cardiff and Newport.

The council scandal does not feature in any of the top stories on the newspaper's website, although it does find space to report on a fatal road accident involving Jacqui Thompson. The grief and trauma suffered by those involved in this terrible accident are of lesser importance in the newspaper's treatment of the story than the fact that she is a blogger.

Anyone wanting to read what the paper has to say will have to drill down into the website to retrieve a story which, apart from a couple of brief introductory paragraphs explaining the background, is a cut and paste of a press release which the council sent out to the media. There is no report at all on the audit committee meeting held on Friday.

Moving on to the Western Mail, readers of the newspaper's website will find a range of stories on the home page, including pieces about the privatisation of Royal Mail, Only Men Aloud, a property development in Cardiff, Strictly Come Dancing and MTV's "The Valleys". The closest we come to Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire is a story about Ironman Wales 2013, which was held in Pembrokeshire.

Searches on Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire retrieve nothing at all about the council scandals, although there is a piece about the ongoing row in Caerphilly.

The only newspaper to report on yesterday's audit committee meeting in Carmarthen and to give it space on its home page is the South Wales Guardian.

The Guardian's report is both detailed and interesting, with quotes from most of the key players.

Readers will recall that the newspaper found itself blacklisted by the County Council last year for its "negative"  reporting.

Clearly County Hall would much prefer the newspaper to stick to reporting dog shows.

Friday 27 September 2013

The Audit Committee Meets


The BBC's latest report on the pensions opt-out can be found here. Significantly it says at the very end of the piece that the WAO is not aware of any councils other than Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire operating such a scheme.


As headlines go, that has got to be one which trainee journalists would be told never to use, but we live in strange times in Carmarthenshire, and audit reports are rapidly becoming more interesting than sex in these parts. Well, perhaps not.

Cneifiwr was unfortunately unable to attend, and sadly the council's filming pilot does not yet extend to committee meetings, so what follows has had to be pieced together.

The primary business before the committee was to review the report of the Appointed Auditor, Mr Anthony Barrett, who also happens to be the Assistant Auditor General for Wales. Mr Barrett it was who triggered the collapse of the house of cards in Caerphilly when he produced a report which concluded that pay rises for the chief executive and 20 other senior managers were unlawful.

Events in Caerphilly have taken another turn today (see Western Mail report here), with Mr Barrett concluding that one-off payments totalling a reported £218,000 to compensate senior council officers for the loss of car user allowances were also unlawful. More on this another time, but back to Carmarthen.

Overall the auditor's report praised the county council for its financial management, but there were two serious bones of contention in the form of the chief executive's libel indemnity and what we can now call the pensions scandal.

All of this was a little too nit-picky for the vice chair, Cllr Giles Morgan (Ind), who proceeded to give a demonstration of why Carmarthenshire County Council has got itself into such a mess with a speech showering the council's officers with praise. The Three Wise Monkeys are alive and well in this part of the world, and one of them represents Swiss Valley ward.

Fortunately there were some councillors willing to probe and ask awkward questions, with Cllr Alun Lenny (Plaid) making a particularly strong showing despite being a substitute member.

The council's Head of Law, Mrs Linda Rees Jones, was on hand to try to steer the council's ship of state around the jagged rocks, and she intervened in proceedings at several points. As far as the libel indemnity was concerned, this was a legal question and not one for discussion by the audit committee, seemed to be the gist.

The upshot of this part of the meeting was that there is currently a legal stand-off between the council's lawyers and the WAO, and matters will be left to take their course.

As far as the pensions scandal is concerned, there will be a full investigation of just what happened, and in particular who initiated the process which led to the chief executive (and most likely one other senior officer) receiving the employer's pension contribution as part of their salary.

Sir David Rowell Lewis, the recently appointed external member of the committee, played a key part in a discussion on the sign-off of the council's accounts. Mrs Rees Jones was all for getting the committee to sign off the accounts on behalf of the council, whereas Sir David wanted to know whether all council members had been involved in approving the two items of expenditure which the auditor deemed to be unlawful.

This being Carmarthenshire, the answer was obviously not, so he suggested that the wording on the report should be changed to "the Executive Board on behalf of the Council".

The neat little amendment places responsibility fairly and squarely with the people who actually approved the pensions tax dodge and the libel indemnity.

For the first time in Carmarthenshire delegation of powers turned out to be a double-edged sword. Or as Stanley Baldwin had it, "Power without responsibility - the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages."


In a separate move, Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM has called on the Local Government Minister to make a statement on the pensions scandal. The full text of the Plaid press release can be found below:

Local Assembly Member and Plaid Cymru’s Local Government Spokesperson Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM has today (27/09/13) tabled an urgent question to the Local Government Minister calling on her to make a statement on what he calls a “pensions scandal” in west Wales.
The action by Rhodri Glyn Thomas comes after the Wales Audit Office refused to sign off Pembrokeshire Council’s accounts over payments made to senior council officials. The WAO has also confirmed that Carmarthenshire Council carries out a similar practice which it considers to be “unlawful”. The payments enable the councils’ highest-paid staff to leave the Local Government Pensions Scheme, receiving a cash equivalent of the employer's pension contribution, for tax reasons.
During a meeting of Carmarthenshire Council’s Audit Committee today, WAO has referred also to an “unlawful” expenditure in which the council’s chief executive was indemnified by the council for his libel counter-claim against a county resident.
The Carmarthen East and Dinefwr AM has previously taken action on senior pay in local government.  In June this year, he successfully forced the Welsh government into a u-turn to bring about independent assessment of senior council officers’ salaries as part of the government’s Local Democracy Bill.
Mr. Thomas commented:
“This is the latest in a long line of scandals around senior pay. We are in an age of austerity and local government workers, who keep our vital services functioning, need to be reassured that those at the top are not getting special treatment.
“The idea that you can opt out of the pensions scheme and get payments instead, is of dubious legality. Further, it undermines the wider scheme. It says to the workers that the highest paid officials are not going to be paying their contributions in and contributing to the pensions pot.
“The Wales Audit Office considers the actions of both Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire Councils to be unlawful.  The Welsh Government needs to make a statement on whether it agrees with these damaging pensions opt-outs, and whether it believes they are legal. We need to know if this practice is happening in other public services.”
Constituency colleague, Jonathan Edwards MP added:
“In the case of Carmarthenshire council the opinion of the Appointed Auditor is very clear – he considers two expenditures relating to the Chief Executive to be unlawful.
“Carmarthenshire residents need answers.  What advice was sought about the legality of these two expenditures?  How much did that advice cost county taxpayers?  Who took the decision to approve the Chief Executive’s new pension arrangements?  Who is accountable for these decisions?
“As the teams of lawyers from both the Audit Office and the council go back and forth debating the legality of the actions, how much more will this cost county taxpayers?
“It seems as if it’s another day and yet another question mark hanging over county hall. 
“Carmarthenshire needs a political reboot and an end to what I consider to be too cosy a relationship between the ruling Labour and Independent Executive and the council’s senior management. 
“The residents of Carmarthenshire deserve nothing less than a full investigation into how almost £40,000 of public money has been spent unlawfully.”

Council of Despair - The Press Release

The Chief swivelled round in his gigantic red buffalo leather chair to look out of the windows of his oak panelled office at the town stretched out below.

Terry, the gigantic and rather overweight Persian, purred loudly in his lap.

He had had Terry for just a few months now, and he looked so resplendent in his jewel encrusted collar and cat show medal. Terry was so docile and house trained, unlike that last old moggy, he thought uncharitably. There had been times when he really had wanted to have her put down.

"I have achieved so much, and yet there is still much to do, Terry", the Chief mused, stroking the sleek old tom cat.

Down in the town below the Chief's legacy was everywhere to be seen. The shiny new shopping mall with its expensive boutiques; the new Alabama Fried Chicken All-You-Can-Eat Buffet; Pondos Chicken Wings and the Arkansas Ribshack; the flashing lights of "We Buy Any Gold" over in King Street; the brand-new Hallelujah True Gospel roller skating facility with its smart cocktail bar and casino....

Even at this early hour the town was coming to life. Over in the distance he could see members of Christian Voice protesting against the sins of sodomy and same-sex marriage, while a short distance away queues were already forming outside the Beacon of Hope Foodbank.

What had the Reverend Bonnett said last week? "Business is booming, Chief". And soon work would begin on the Mary-Lou Mercy Center, a branch of Oklahoma Gospel Ventures Inc. How exciting!

The problem was that there were just not enough shoppers to go around all of the retail delights and eateries, as the press office insisted on calling the fast food joints.

The Chief's gaze fell on some distant green fields and trees. Ah, the new Merylville where there would shortly be over a thousand new houses.

Picking up Terry, the Chief walked over to a huge table bearing a scale model of this exciting new development. There were the executive homes in Princess Camilla Place and Duchess of Cambridge Drive. Tucked away in a small corner were even a few homes for poor people in Palmer Avenue.

A discreet cough brought the Chief out of his reveries.

"What is it, Smithers?"

"Security found someone rummaging through the files down in the basement, Sir. Shall I show him in?"

A small man wearing half-moon spectacles and leather patches on his tweed jacket was presently ushered in.

"To what do we owe this honour?" asked the Chief.

"The name is Bond, Basildon Bond", came the reply, "and I am here auditing your accounts".

"Ah, Mr Bond, we have been expecting you", the Chief replied, stroking Terry.

"I regret that I have uncovered evidence of unlawful activity in this organisation", the bean counter continued, "and I have written a report which has already been published".

"Surely not, Mr Bond. Unlawful activity, you say? Smithers, what do you think?"

"I have asked Ms Klebb in the Information Office to draft a press release to deal with Mr Bond's, ahem, allegations, and she will be with us shortly", the ever-efficient factotum replied.

"Very good, Smithers", the Chief continued. "I think Mr Bond would enjoy a swim in our pool after all his hard work, don't you, Smithers?"

"You mean to say you have an undeclared executive swimming pool?" the accountant gasped.

"Indeed we do, Mr Bond, and the water has some positively tropical features", the Chief replied, thinking of Tiddles the gigantic bull shark which had dealt with so many prying busybodies in the past. "Show Mr Bond the way, Smithers, and tell Ms Klebb that I am ready for her."

Minutes later, Rosa Klebb appeared at the door in her starched uniform.

"Ah Rosa, do come in, but please retract those blades in your shoes before you walk on my beautiful Axminster. Now what have you got for me today?"

"Mein Kommandant, I heff prepared zis statement to deal viz ze vile accusations made by zis Bond character".

Did Ms Klebb really come from Llanelli as she claimed, the Chief wondered before picking up the sheet of A4 and reading aloud,

"The running dogs and lickspittles of the Audit Office have joined forces in a conspiracy with the Public Services Ombudsman, certain politicians, elements of the press and scurrilous vebloggers on the Interweb to produce a vile tissue of lies which besmirch our great and glorious name. There is not a scintilla of truth in this poisonous concoction of bile and perverted fantasy."

"Well, well, Ms Klebb, your English has certainly improved, although the wording needs a little refinement. And I believe that the term "vebloggers" is normally spelt with a 'w'."

The Chief read on.

"Laughable accusations have been made that unlawful activity has occurred on these premises. Anyone repeating these lies will find themselves shot dealing with our lawyers.

"In any case, we wish to make it clear that the Chief had no knowledge of these matters, was not present at the time, and has never taken part in any such meetings. Full responsibility for any unlawful activity lies squarely with elected representatives and junior staff, whose interests lie so close to the heart of the Chief."

"Ah Ms Klebb, your thoughts as always echo my own sentiments. Return to my office in half an hour when I have made a few small editorial adjustments."

Rosa Klebb goose stepped out of the Executive Suite, leaving the Chief to reflect that this was just another small crisis which could be ridden out like all the others. Yes, things really were not so bad.

The Chief's thoughts were interrupted by the sounds of a commotion down in the street.

He peered out of the window and saw a familiar red-haired figure brandishing a placard.

It was that bloody woman again, he thought, as he gazed upon the words painted in a garish blood red paint on a tatty piece of cardboard.

"The End is Nigh", he read, snapping the gold-plated biro which had been a generous gift from Camilla between his fingers.

By Sali Mali-Cachu

(With apologies to Sylvie Krin)

Thursday 26 September 2013

Unlawful Payments - the Council's View

As news broke yesterday that the auditor appointed by the Wales Audit Office had labelled two payments to the Chief Executive as unlawful, the Council responded to inquiries from the media with a written statement.

Needless to say, the local authority remains "firmly of the view that we have followed the correct course of action."

As usual, the carefully chosen words spin the facts.

The Council took independent legal advice which concluded that the indemnity was in order, we are told, and that the Wales Audit Office had agreed at the time that the authority did indeed have these powers.

The facts of the matter are that using public money to bring libel actions is prohibited under the Local Authorities (Indemnities for Members and Officers) Wales Order 2006. What the council did was to find a legal loophole.

Instead of consulting extremely expensive libel specialists in London, you might think the council would have asked the Welsh Government, which after all employs a lot of lawyers.  That would certainly have been cheaper, and it seems odd to ask the Wales Audit Office for a legal opinion on a rather innovative interpretation of the law.

It's a bit like asking a carpenter for advice on new and untried plumbing developments.

Staying with the libel indemnity, the council's statement goes on:

"We would confirm that the Chief Executive of the council, who was the officer involved in the libel action, was not the author of the report to councillors on the matter, and did not participate or offer any advice during the process. As a result of the order for costs and damages awarded by the judge in the case we fully expect to recover our costs and that there will ultimately be no cost to the council."

There was indeed a report presented to a handful of councillors (the 9 members of the governing Executive Board at the time to be exact). The report was most likely written by the council's Head of Law and Administration, and it has never been made public.

Shortly before the Executive Board met to approve the report and its recommendations, the Head of Law wrote an e-mail to Mr James saying that she needed to talk to him about it. We know this because the e-mail was released in response to an Freedom of Information request.

Despite having a direct personal interest in the Board's decision, Mr James attended the meeting at which the report was approved, and if he did declare an interest, no declaration is mentioned in the meeting minutes. At the libel trial in London Mr James told the court that he could not recall these details.

Furthermore, the matter was treated as an emergency item and did not appear on the published agenda. Public and press were excluded from the part of the meeting which discussed and approved the report for good measure.

As for recovering the costs (stated by the auditor to be £23,000), the first thing to note is that the judge ordered Jacqui Thompson to pay costs of £41,000 in respect of the counterclaim.

Why the discrepancy?

Secondly, as the council knows only too well, Jacqui Thompson's insurers withdrew their cover when the verdict was published. 

In order for the council to recover its costs, Mr James to receive his damages and the council's own insurers to recover their losses, Jacqui Thompson will be forced to sell her home. The problem with that is that the value of the property is rather less than the sum of the costs and damages awarded against her.

How, then, can the council be confident that it will recover its costs?

If anything, the council's justification for paying Mr James money in lieu of an employer's pension contribution is even more disingenuous.

It is now clear that this arrangement was approved about 3 years ago because Mr James has been receiving the money for two years.

It is also clear that the arrangement is a tax avoidance scheme.

That means that it was approved by the council when it was led by Meryl Gravell and her Independents in coalition with Labour. 

Labour voters in Carmarthenshire may find it hard to believe this, but the bottom line is that Kevin Madge and his party colleagues supported a plan to reduce the tax liabilities of one of the highest paid people in Wales, let alone Carmarthenshire.

What happened to the principle that the more you earn and the more you have, the more you are expected to contribute to society?

The council's statement explains: 
This situation has been brought about by changes in tax rules which make it difficult for people earning above a certain level to remain in the occupational pension scheme. We believe there are numerous other employers including local authorities, universities and housing associations who have adopted the same practice. The decision was made having obtained expert advice from independent consultants. We have also sought independent legal advice.

Difficult to remain in the local authority pension scheme, or less tax efficient? Clearly the auditor could see no reason why Mr James could not remain in the same scheme as everyone else, and neither could the auditor in neighbouring Pembrokeshire (see recent post).

Readers may have noticed that the council has been forking out for a great deal of independent advice, whether legal or financial, at what was no doubt enormous cost. The main beneficiary of this was Mr James.

The final sentence is the one which really takes the biscuit:

We would also confirm that the Chief Executive was not present in the meeting in which this decision was reached and did not offer any advice to the councillors making the decision.

The implication of this is that one day one or more relatively junior council staff suddenly became concerned about the implications of tax changes which could adversely affect the pensions of a handful of the highest paid people in the council. So worried were they, that they wrote a detailed report and recommendations to give special treatment to this unlucky few. They also commissioned expensive financial and legal advice to back up their recommendations, all without any involvement from the beneficiaries of the scheme.

Observant readers will also notice that the wording of the council's statement places all of the responsibility for this tax avoidance arrangement on the shoulders of the councillors (in reality the 9 member Executive Board led by Meryl Gravell and her deputy Kevin Madge).

One other remaining mystery is the timing of the payment to the Chief Executive of some £20,000 in expenses in respect of his duties as Returning Officer.  A coincidence perhaps, but the money was paid well in advance of the elections to which the fees related, and the payment was made immediately before the end of a tax year.

Was this also an arrangement designed to reduce tax liabilities?

Wednesday 25 September 2013


Update 21.35

The media have been quick to pick up on this story, or rather parts of the media. The BBC and the South Wales Guardian deserve special praise. Tomos Livingstone gave a very thorough and accurate account on the news bulletin on Radio Cymru this evening.

The Carmarthen Journal has so far remained silent.

Update 16.50

Plaid Cymru has just issued the following statement:

"Commenting on today’s revelations that the appointed auditor of Carmarthenshire County Council’s accounts has considered two financial transactions of the authority to be “unlawful”, local Assembly Member and Plaid Cymru’s Shadow Minister for Local Government, Rhodri Glyn Thomas has issued a statement.
Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM said:
“Carmarthenshire residents will quite rightly be deeply concerned by the findings of the appointed auditor in that he considers two financial transactions by the County Council to be unlawful.
“For over three years Jonathan Edwards MP and I have raised our concern that taxpayers’ money was being used to indemnify the costs of the Chief Executive’s legal action.
“As a result, Carmarthenshire County Council’s Chief Executive has been the subject of questions to the First Minister of Wales and the UK Secretary of State for Local Government.
“The report’s findings in respect of two unlawful transactions justify the efforts that both Jonathan Edwards and I, as elected representatives, have put into this matter.  The conclusion of the auditor in respect of the indemnity vindicates our position over the last three years.
“The report is exceptionally damaging for the reputation of Carmarthenshire and I am firmly of the opinion that officials and elected members of the council’s Executive must be held accountable for their actions.”

Sometimes in Wales it doesn't just pours.

The Appointed Auditor brought into look at Carmarthenshire County Council's Annual Statement of Accounts has highlighted two matters which in his opinion were unlawful:

Emphasis of matter – unlawful transactions 

I draw attention to the matters disclosed in note 6.50 to the accounts in relation to (i) remuneration totalling £16,353 paid to the Chief Executive in lieu of employer pension contributions; and (ii) £23,217 of expenditure incurred in granting an indemnity to the Chief Executive to bring a libel counter-claim against a claimant. These transactions are considered to be unlawful. Our opinion is not qualified in respect of these matters. 

The first of these payments relates to an arrangement which appears to be identical to a similar scheme operating in Pembrokeshire (see previous post), enabling the Chief Executive to opt out of the Dyfed Pension Fund and have employer's contributions paid to him directly, in what is no doubt a highly tax-efficient way.

The second payment relates to the probably unique constitutional amendment which enables council officers to apply to the council for funding to bring libel actions, contrary to the Welsh Government's rules which allow only for funding to defend libel actions.

Not included in the auditor's review is the very interesting arrangement which allows the Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council to pay himself in advance for the work carried out in his capacity as Returning Officer. As we saw last year, Mr James paid himself an advance of £20,000 or thereabouts before nominations for the 2012 council elections had even closed.

When questioned, the council admitted that it was not sure exactly when the payment had been made, and also seemed confused about how much money was actually involved. 

It will come as no surprise to learn that the council run by Mr James disputes the auditor's findings.

A meeting of the council's audit committee is scheduled for this coming Friday, and should for once be an unmissable event.

One of the interesting questions in the coming weeks and months will be the role played by the council's Executive Board and senior councillors who approved all of these various special arrangements, albeit with the advice and guidance of senior officers.

Will heads roll, and if so how many?


It is probably worth clarifying that the auditor referred to above is not the same as the Wales Audit Office which is currently also looking into the legality of the indemnity and in particular the legality of the way in which the indemnity was awarded (behind closed doors in secret, with no declarations of interest and in the presence of Mr James as part of a meeting of the Executive Board, but without being advertised on the agenda).

The WAO has been investigating what are believed to be three separate complaints about this for more than 6 months, and is due to report back soon.

It will be interesting to see if any of this makes it into the pages of the Carmarthen Journal. If not, Private Eye will probably have something to say in its Rotten Boroughs column.

All In It Together

Carmarthenshire council watchers who look over the fence to see what is going on next door in Pembrokeshire will know from reading the excellent Old Grumpy, or the not half bad Jacob Williams, that the grass really isn't greener over there. Unless you are on the local government Rich List.

Old Grumpy leads this week with news that Pembrokeshire County Council is in a spot of bother with the Wales Audit Office for allowing senior officers to opt out of having employer pension contributions (i.e. our contributions to their pension pots) paid into the Dyfed Pension Fund.

If they so choose, the lucky few can have the money paid into private schemes which may or may not make use of ingenious tax avoidance mechanisms, possibly in exotic offshore havens.

Only the council's chief executive, Bryn Parry-Jones, took advantage of this concession in the last tax year, although he has now been joined by a colleague.

Also peering over the garden fence with interest, we can safely assume, will be members of Carmarthenshire County Council's own elite officers' club.

Watch this space.

Tuesday 24 September 2013

The Best Bungalows Money Can Buy


By coincidence, the council's press office today ran a story highlighting the authority's investment in social housing. There is very little in the piece that actually qualifies as news, but it seems that there will now be 38 new old people's bungalows as opposed to 39 as announced last year.

The first phase of the project is now underway, we are told, but the report published last week showing that there has been a major budget overspend is not mentioned.


At this month's meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council leader Kevin Madge spoke proudly about one of the centrepieces of his administration - the fact that the council has started building social housing again.

Viewers of the live broadcast will have noticed that at that point Cllr Callum Higgins went into nodding dog overdrive as he sat hanging on his leader's every word, although even Callum would be hard put to work out quite what Kev meant at times.

Off we went on a trip down memory lane to the council house building programmes of the 1950s and 1960s and the achievements of previous generations. If there was a message, the message was that Kev was boldly taking up where our forefathers left off.

The comparison is flattering because the much trumpeted bungalow scheme is very modest indeed, and will eventually produce 39 small bungalows for the elderly.

What Kev almost certainly knew at the time, but forgot to mention, was that the scheme is out of control.

The projected cost was £3.6 million, and Kev boasted last year (post here) that they would be the best money could buy. That works out at £92,000 per bungalow, which given the small size of the homes should have been enough to build some very nice homes indeed.

This blog wondered at the time whether, despite the generous budget, the project would come in as forecast.

A glance at a report studied by the Executive Board last week shows that things have gone rather awry, with costs already running at £511,000 more than expected. That's an extra £13,000 per bungalow, or an increase of nearly 15%, assuming that the budget overrun is for all 39 bungalows rather than just some of them.

The report is very sparing on detail, and what we don't know is how many bungalows have so far been completed, or whether the budget overrun is for the whole project or just part of it.

Bearing in mind that the costs quoted do not include the value of the land they sit on, a new-build costing around £160,000 (£105,000 build cost plus, say, £55,000 for the plot) would have an asking price of not much less than £180,000 on the open market.

Anyone with that sort of money to spend in Llanelli would be looking at rather more than a two bed semi-detached bungalow.

But as Kev said last year, these will be the best bungalows money can buy. Either that, or someone is making a killing.

Monday 23 September 2013

A Bum Deal

The row about Carmarthenshire County Council's plans to shut down most of its public lavatories ("not a statutory responsibility") has been rumbling on for ages, and may well soon replace wind turbines as the main topic of debate in the letters pages of the local press.

Here in Newcastle Emlyn we were fortunate to have two sets of public loos. At one end of town the Town Council operates the toilets in Cawdor Hall (commonly known as the "Clock Tower"). They will remain open at least until renovation work begins on that building.

At the other end of town, next to the livestock mart and at one end of the main car park, the County Council will close the public toilets for good from today.

Bad luck for any locals or visitors who are caught short, and potentially disastrous for customers of the livestock mart held in town twice a week.

Like the mart's customers, Cneifiwr grew up on a farm, and it was always easier just to whip out your tackle and relieve yourself in the yards or fields as necessary, rather than traipse back to the house and, in Cneifiwr's case, face the wrath of a houseproud mother who would often insist on a strip wash with a bucket of water, scrubbing brush and Fairy Liquid in the garden before allowing so much as a toe to cross the threshold.

As it happens, the doomed toilets are on land leased to the mart's operators, auctioneers Dai Lewis.

There has been periodic friction between some of the town's traders and residents on the one hand, and the mart's operators on the other. Matters were not improved a few years back when the county council negotiated a new lease with Dai Lewis which saw the mart operator take over a chunk of the busy public car park.

The dire state of the car park, with its rapidly escalating parking charges, frustrated shoppers and the presence in town twice a week of large numbers of cattle lorries and 4x4s with trailers are not an ideal mix, but like everything else in life, a bit of give and take can work wonders.

So you would think that the county council might have used its good offices to point out to the auctioneers that they have benefited from a generous deal, and a financial contribution to enable the toilets to remain open would be good not just for the mart's customers, but also a goodwill gesture towards the town.

If there were such pleas, they fell on deaf ears.

Ladies of a nervous disposition shopping in Newcastle Emlyn have been warned, although Cneifiwr's money is on the mart installing some portaloos and sticking two fingers up at the town.

Sunday 22 September 2013

S4C and Carmarthen

This piece was going to be in Welsh, but it is likely that news that S4C is considering moving parts of its operations to either Gwynedd (most likely Caernarfon or its environs) or Carmarthen will have escaped the notice of many who do not follow the Welsh-language media.

The announcement that the channel is considering the move has been very well received, and the blogosphere is now humming with debate about the merits of the respective locations, although it is important to emphasize that the move is by no means a done deal.

Two groups have been asked to look at the ideas in more detail. One is being led by Gwynedd County Council, while the other is headed by the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, rather than being entrusted to Carmarthenshire County Council. Carmarthenshire County Council's otherwise assertive PR operations have so far been strangely quiet about the whole thing.

In the meantime, there is genuine excitement at the prospect of a move, and if it happens it would be the first step towards realisation of the vision for the revitalisation of West Wales outlined by Adam Price, prospective AM for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, earlier this year (Adam's proposals can be found in Arfor - a region for the Welsh-speaking West).

If and when S4C has to decide between Caernarfon and Carmarthen, the choice will be a very difficult one because both towns have a strong case, and the language factor will be only one of the considerations.

Either way, the transfer to the West of well-paid and creative Welsh-speaking jobs would at least go a little way towards tackling the problem of lack of opportunity for talented and intelligent young Welsh speakers in the region.

Selfishly, most people in Carmarthenshire, the author of this blog included, would be very happy if S4C were to opt for Carmarthen, but it is legitimate to worry that one of the biggest handicaps we face is the body which is supposed to have the interests and economic and cultural well-being of our county at heart.

Despite the decline in numbers in Carmarthenshire saying that they can speak Welsh in the most recent census, the county still has a very large number of Welsh speakers. There are lots of ways of interpreting the census figures, but certainly if the urban and increasingly cosmopolitan population of Llanelli is taken out of the equation, Welsh speakers are in a majority in the county.

You would not think that if you were the senior management of S4C hoping to engage with the leadership of the county council.

The chief executive, despite being in post for over 10 years and apparently having agreed to learn the language as a condition of his appointment, is a monoglot English speaker. The council leader, Kevin Madge, almost never uses the language in public. His two deputies, Pam Palmer and Tegwen Devichand, speak no Welsh. The attitude towards the language of some of the other senior councillors on the ruling Executive Board is at best ambivalent and sometimes hostile. The Director of Regeneration, one of the most senior posts in the council, and the man with responsibility for economic development of the county, is another monoglot English speaker. Even the council's official mouthpiece, the head of the press office, is unable to communicate in Welsh.

And so it goes on. The County Council as it is currently constituted is led by a group which is simply unrepresentative of the people of the county.

That imbalance shows up most clearly in the council's vision and priorities. We export homegrown talent, and import social problems and over-paid officials to govern us.

Economic "regeneration" boils down to building large housing estates and retail developments, where the minimum wage is the norm and profits are sent back east. If you look through the council's press releases covering its regeneration schemes, you will quickly see that the council's preferred partners are anything other than local.

Debenhams, Nandos, Caffe Nero, Odeon Cinemas, Tesco, Sainsbury's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Robbie Savage, multinational property developers, the Simons Group and Taylor Wimpey. Regeneration? We're not so much building Jerusalem as a new Croydon in Carmarthenshire's green hills.

Carmarthen can thank its lucky stars that Trinity Saint David is putting its case forward rather than what anywhere else, such as Gwynedd, would have been the more obvious choice.

Saturday 21 September 2013

Glittering Prizes

Cneifiwr once won a small prize at an eisteddfod, and at school he coveted a prize for academic achievement which took the form of a brick left over from the building of a new gym. The Head decided, wisely perhaps, to abolish the prize rather than put a brick into the hands of young Cneifiwr.

So apart from that very small cheque from the eisteddfod and a gilt plastic trophy won for clay pigeon shooting, Cneifiwr's trophy cabinet is entirely bare.

Not so the array of glass cabinets on display at County Hall in Carmarthen which groan with municipal bling, some of which is of dubious merit, artistic or otherwise.

Back in the reign of Queen Meryl, barely a council meeting went by without the presentation of some award or other. More often than not it was a case of mutual back slapping, involving quangos such as the WLGA.

Under King Kev the flow of trophies has pretty much dried up. If memory serves right, the last item of interest to appear on the podium was Cllr Siân Thomas's cute squirrel just before Christmas.

One body which can usually be relied on to come up with the goods is the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), which last year saw Carmarthenshire County Council's Ministry of Spin shortlisted under four separate categories for the annual PRide Cymru shindig in Cardiff.

Cneifiwr has considered compiling a dossier of the best bits of the press office's work to help the judges in the difficult process of sorting the sheep from the goats. Last year, for example, they faced an agonising choice between the council propaganda sheets churned out by Carmarthenshire and Caerphilly.

Other nominations last year included a PR outfit for its outstanding success with something called the Big Jublilee Lunch 2012. So successful was that campaign that the event passed unnoticed and uncelebrated in huge swathes of the country, with not so much as a fish paste sandwich in sight.

Sadly the dodgy dossier will now have to be shelved because Carmarthenshire has not made it onto the shortlist under any category.

Neither for some inexplicable reason has the County Borough of Caerphilly.

Perhaps the CIPR is involved in its own damage limitation exercise.

Friday 20 September 2013

Y Mentrau, y Cyngor Sir a'r Gweithgor

Faint o engyl all sefyll ar glopa pin, a pha mor ddu yw cath ddu? Yn ei hanfod, dyna'r ddadl ffyrnig rhwng Mentrau Iaith Sir Gâr, y Cyngor Sir ei hun a chadeirydd Gweithgor y Cyfrifiad, Cefin Campbell, am gyllid y mentrau.

Yn y rhifyn newydd o Golwg mae Alun Gibbard yn rhoi cynnig ar ddilyn yr ymryson i'w wraidd. Fel mae Alun yn esbonio, y cwestiwn yw a oedd arian wedi'i neilltuo ar gyfer Mentrau Iaith yn cael ei ddefnyddio i dalu am waith y gweithgor?

"Mae arian wedi cael ei roi naill ochr ar gyfer hynny. Ac unwaith eto, dyw e ddim yn gywir i ddweud bod arian wedi ei dynnu o'r Mentrau er mwyn ei roi i'r gweithgor", dywedodd Cefin Campbell wrth Golwg. 

Roedd ateb Cefin yn ddigon clir, felly.

Wrth iddo siarad â Golwg, cyhoeddodd adran wasg y cyngor ddatganiad arall er mwyn "mireinio ar y manylion":

Yn sgil cyhoeddi canlyniadau’r Cyfrifiad 2011 ym mis Rhagfyr 2012 cytunodd Bwrdd Gweithredol y Cyngor i neilltuo’r arian oedd wedi ei dorri o’r Mentrau er mwyn cefnogi gwaith ymchwil pellach ac i fynd i’r afael ag argymhellion Gweithgor y Cyfrifiad. Nid oes unrhyw ymrwymiadau wedi’u cytuno i’r arian hwn hyd yma.

Mae hynny'n ddigon clir hefyd.

Ond eto, er gwaetha eglurder yr atebion, mae'r niwl yn parhau. Ac dw i ddim yn credu am eiliad fod Cefin Campbell am gamarwain y cylchgrawn.

The WAO investigates (very slowly)

Golwg, the Welsh current affairs magazine (available in all good newsagents but not Tesco's), reports that the Wales Audit Office is investigating Carmarthenshire County Council's use of public money to fund the chief executive's libel action against blogger Jacqui Thompson.

The article adds a couple of interesting new pieces of information to what has previously been reported on this blog (see A Bombshell).

Firstly, it seems that the WAO investigation is taking place as part of the auditor's annual inspection of the County Council's accounts. Golwg points out that the Welsh Government has rules in place explicitly prohibiting councils from using public money to enable council officers to bring libel actions.

It is also now clear that several complaints about the award of Mr James's indemnity were made to the Wales Audit Office, and Rhodri Glyn Thomas, the Assembly Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, confirmed to Golwg that he was one of those to have made a complaint.

The AM previously told the magazine that Carmarthenshire County Council was "the only county council in Wales and the UK to allow the use of public money to bring [libel] cases against voters".

At least one of the complaints was made back in early March of this year, and so the WAO can hardly be accused of rushing its investigation.

Debbie Williams, who heads up the council's press office, told Golwg that the WAO had to respond if someone raised a matter with them and that "we will be happy to provide them with any information they need".

Ms Williams was unable or unwilling to provide Golwg with a statement in Welsh. Let's hope that the council's Census Working Group takes note of this latest example of the gulf which separates the council's warm words about the language and the reality.

Thursday 19 September 2013

Carmarthenshire News - Tweets means prizes!

The latest edition of Carmarthenshire County Council's propaganda sheet, Carmarthenshire News, has just landed on the doormat in its environmentally friendly plastic wrapper and stuffed with other bits of paper.

At least it should help Cllr Colin Evans boost his recycling rates.

The latest edition invites readers with a Twitter account to tell the council what they think about the paper, and the lucky few could win a prize.

Somehow Cneifiwr doesn't think his contribution will be among those "picked at random" to receive a gift.