Tuesday 8 October 2013

A stand-off, but will anyone blink?


The Plaid Cymru group on the council (in opposition despite being the largest) has asked the Leader of the Council, Kevin Madge (Lab) for an official statement on the dispute at tomorrow's meeting.

He does not have to agree to make a statement, but will be aware that a refusal will not look good. If he does agree, the Chief Executive will most likely have to vacate the chamber and watch proceedings on the live webcast.

And of course if Kev does make a statement, even in the most evasive and non-committal terms, the flood gates will open to allow - shock horror - open debate.

Valium all round!

Meanwhile everyone in Carmarthenshire who plays bowls, cricket, football or rugby on council-owned pitches is digesting the news that charges for their use are set to rocket (tripling in the case of bowls to over £300 per year). This is urgently needed to eliminate a deficit of £250,000 in the annual maintenance costs.

Whether these dramatic belt tightening measures will be applied to the most expensive strip of turf in Carmarthenshire (no, not Garnant golf club) remains to be seen. Rumour has it that the suits and blazers from the Scarlets boardroom will now be showing up in the chamber with their sosban fawr on 21st October.


The Llanelli Star has had a chat with the Wales Audit Office (report here) to try to find out what is likely to happen in the dispute between the auditors and Carmarthenshire County Council, and Caebrwyn has produced a very useful summary of the latest developments involving the local authorities in Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire and Caerphilly here.

The WAO's statement to the newspaper is hedged with a lot of ifs and buts, but in essence what it is saying is that if the council does not back down, the first step will be to issue public interest reports. Those would make public the auditor's findings. If that does not cause the council to blink, the WAO could go to court to get a ruling on the legality of the disputed libel indemnity and pension schemes.

Not mentioned for obvious reasons is that the auditor could go to the police, as has happened in the case of Caerphilly, to investigate whether there has been serious wrongdoing.

The upshot of all this seems to be that nothing is going to happen very soon, but it's worth speculating what could happen as the process grinds on.

For its part the council has already made it very clear that it does not consider that it has done anything wrong, and it has taken expensive legal advice to back up its position.

The WAO may also find it very difficult to back down in view of the stand it is taking in Caerphilly and Pembrokeshire. A decision not to go after Carmarthenshire would not only bring down a storm of criticism, but also compromise its case in the other authorities.

If the council were to blink and give in to the WAO, it would have to eat a municipal truckload of humble pie, and humble pie is never on the menu at County Hall. The Chief Executive would presumably also have to repay both the indemnity and the employer pension contributions he has received. Not much change left out of £40,000 there, although he should be able to afford it.

The cost to his own pocket and the personal humiliation involved mean that it is unlikely that the chief executive will simply roll over. The arguments deployed for fighting on are certain to include the following:
  • The council has taken the best legal advice money can buy and is confident that it can carry the day.
  • A re-hash of Meryl Gravell's "if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys" argument. A reversal of the pensions tax dodge would mean that Carmarthenshire would not be able to attract the best and brightest senior council officers. The problem with that, of course, is that 20 out of 22 Welsh councils saw no need to put such a scheme into place, but why should people who earn lots of money have to pay more tax?
  • A surrender on the granting of indemnities to senior officers and/or councillors would leave innocent council officers and councillors open to abuse and terror campaigns by bloggers and others. The chief executive only undertook action against Jacqui Thompson to protect the weak and vulnerable. That was a fiction which was swallowed by the judge, of course, but as with the pensions issue, the arguments will ignore the fact that no other local authority in Wales has felt the need to go down this road.
The people the chief executive has to persuade are the members of the Executive Board, and it is unlikely that he will encounter much opposition from the Independents led by Pam Palmer and Meryl Gravell, both of whom bear a great deal of responsibility for the situation we now find ourselves in.

The situation in the Labour group is more problematic. The leader, Kevin Madge, approved both the indemnity and the pensions scheme, and as in the case of Pam and Meryl, there are very likely other skeletons in the Executive Boardroom closet.

Then there is the factional nature of the Labour group. Some may see this as an opportunity to ditch Kev.

There are others, but probably only a tiny handful, who are genuinely disgusted by the whole business, and will oppose a decision to fork out more money to fight court battles for the welfare of the chief executive.

The electoral maths means that Labour is also on a knife edge. The loss of a single councillor to Non-Aligned or Plaid would instantly give Pam Palmer a claim on Kev's job as council leader.

All of which makes the average game of Poker look a bit like a round of Old Maid down at the vicarage.

In theory a decision could be taken by the Executive Board without reference to the full council because these are delegated matters, but Plaid Cymru could table a motion calling on the council to accept the WAO's findings or even to suspend the chief executive pending further investigations.

In order for a motion to succeed, however, Plaid would need the support of both non-aligned councillors and at least 8 others from the ruling Labour/Independent coalition. Somehow, that seems unlikely to succeed.

As things stand, the most likely sequence of events is that the WAO will be forced to publish its public interest reports. The council will be given an opportunity to respond, and then both parties will troop off to court at some point in 2014, by which time Jacqui Thompson's appeal will be history (quite an attractive proposition from the council's point of view).

The downside from the council's perspective is that public opinion in Carmarthenshire would be outraged at the sight of its council spending huge sums of money on litigation for the benefit of the chief executive while it is cutting public services, such as playing fields and sports facilities (see the latest on that here).

Public opinion is not the chief executive's concern, of course, and Labour and the Independents may calculate that with nearly four years to go before they have to face the voters again, everything will have been forgotten by the time people head for the polling stations.

The only thing that could throw a spanner into the works is if there were to be a dramatic new development, such as the involvement of the police.

Any councillor or member of the public could go to the police and report their concerns. That does not guarantee that a police investigation would be launched, and having Dyfed Powys Police investigate a council on its own patch would be far from ideal.

Whatever happens, this one is set to run and run for a very long time to come.

And finally....

There is one interesting inaccuracy in the Llanelli Star's report. The Auditor says that the council spent £23,000 on the indemnity to counter-sue Jacqui Thompson, but Jacqui was ordered to pay over £40,000 in costs for that part of the case.

Cllr Jacob Williams has written another interesting piece on his blog. It seems that because Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire have fielded a joint legal team to deal with the WAO, councillors will be kept in the dark as to what the legal opinion is because that opinion is jointly owned. If Carmarthenshire refuses to give permission to Pembrokeshire to tell its councillors what is happening, elected representatives in Haverfordwest will just have to accept it. And vice versa, of course.

Surprise, surprise, no permission has been given.

In Pembrokeshire Labour is calling for the immediate suspension of the council chief executive because of the pensions scandal.

In Carmarthenshire where the chief executive is facing serious questions on more than one issue, Labour is no more likely to call for a suspension than turkeys would vote for Christmas.


Anonymous said...

Un pwynt ar y Heddlu. Gofynodd Heddlu Gwent i lu arall i ymchwilio mewn i Gyngor Caerffili. Bydde ni'n disgwyl i Dyfed-powys dilyn y cynsail

Anonymous said...

With the speed and enthusiasm with which the Chief Executive called the police to arrest Jacqui Thompson for filming a bloody council meeting surely all this now warrants a couple of Carmarthenshire's finest knocking at the doors of County Hall...

Delyth Jenkins said...

Wonder if the Chief Executive will yell at the Auditor to 'Back off a bit' if he's pushed into a corner.

Dave Edwards said...

It is interesting to note that Pembrokeshire CC will not let their Councillors see the advice given by their legal advisors as it was jointly commissioned with Caarmarthenshie and they have not given their consent.How can councillors debate the issue if their own authority will not let them see the avice whilst the officers concerned have full knowledge of it?

Anonymous said...

What a mess but how convenient is that for chief executives.Cunning plan????

Anonymous said...

"pay peanuts, get monkeys"
In Carmarthenshire, we pay gold bars but still get the monkeys.....

Anonymous said...

Is this the gentleman who has restored my faith that there are still influential people out there with strong values, morals, principles and work ethic? This gentleman is a credit to his profession and the WAO!!


Anonymous said...

Anyone who researches Anthony Barrett the WAO appointed auditor can see for themselves that he is someone of impeccable character and integrity!

Delyth, in answer to your question above, I think you will find that the bullies have met their match! You might also wish to note from the following what Mr Barrett thinks of whistleblowers. You and others like you have so much to be proud of and we the public have so much to be grateful to you for!!!!


Anonymous said...

Someone needs to look into the cosy relationship between C.C.C. and Pembrokeshire C.C.

Anonymous said...

Yes anon 20:27 that someone should be the police!

Delyth Jenkins said...

Thank you Anon 17.59

I am very grateful for all the support. Pity Carmarthenshire County Council didn't show the same support for doing the right thing, and pity they didn't deal with the bullying when one of the senior managers admitted to me they knew it was going on!

Anonymous said...

Sadly Delyth nothing has changed! Bullying and fear continues to pervade CCC from the top down. The majority of Managers are the cause of it so of course they know what is going on. What's worse is that when the s*** hits the fan they shy away from their responsibility, pass the buck and hold those further down the ladder accountable.

Delyth Jenkins said...

I agree, but the last two Managers I worked with, Officer P and Officer R, really took the biscuit.
I witnessed them setting staff up with false accusations if anyone dared to speak up and say something was wrong. This is the culture staff are up against, but it's not the way to run a social care department.