Wednesday 30 October 2013

Council to debate allegations of unlawful payments

Kevin Madge, Labour leader of Carmarthenshire County Council, has told the South Wales Guardian that councillors will be given an opportunity to discuss the row over the Wales Audit Office's findings that pension and libel indemnity payments to the chief executive, Mark James, were unlawful.

It seems that an item will appear on the agenda for the November meeting, and Cllr Madge has promised that "all the necessary" papers will be made available.

Anyone expecting Mr James to tell councillors and the people of Carmarthenshire that the payments were a terrible mistake, and that he should not have accepted them will be in for a disappointment. Backbench councillors on the Labour and Independent benches will have had their arms twisted and be whipped to within an inch of their lives to ensure that they stand by their man and support the council's view that there was nothing wrong with the payments.

The outcome of what will certainly be a carefully choreographed show is not in doubt, not least because Kevin Madge, Pam Palmer, Meryl Gravell and the rest of the council's leadership approved the payments in the first place, and they are not about to plead guilty to misusing taxpayer funds.

The promise to make all necessary papers available is an interesting one, and much will depend on what Kevin Madge, or rather Mark James, considers to be necessary. As we saw recently in Pembrokeshire, the council leader refused to disclose legal advice on the pensions tax dodge which was jointly commissioned by the two councils because only he had a need to see it.

But let's imagine for a moment that the council does decide to put all its cards on the table. Which papers might councillors need to see in order to form a reasoned and balanced judgement? The list is a long one and should include all of the following:

The Libel Indemnity

  • The report which went before the Executive Board in January 2012 recommending the award of the indemnity. This is subject to a public interest exemption and has never been published.
  • The legal advice given to the Council which concluded that Carmarthenshire could side-step Welsh Assembly rules prohibiting the use of taxpayer funds to bring actions for defamation.
  • All correspondence, records of discussions and meeting minutes which led up to the decision to award the indemnity. In particular, councillors need to know:
    • Who exactly initiated the suggestion that the chief executive should make a counter-claim
    • Who approved expenditure on obtaining external legal advice before the award was approved
    • Who, if anyone, approved the chief executive's letter to the Mad Axeman blog before it was sent
    • The terms of the agreement under which Mr James was awarded an indemnity. Is it, for example, open-ended? Does the chief executive need a second indemnity to cover the appeal scheduled for December? Is there any ceiling on how much may be spent?
  •  The Wales Audit Office's public interest report on the matter (currently not published).
 The Pension Arrangement

  • The external legal advice provided both before and after the arrangement was put in place. Given that Pembrokeshire has so far refused to make this public and given that the neighbouring authority apparently has to approve disclosure, it will be very interesting to see if this information is suddenly made available.
  • What is the cost to date of the legal and specialist advice obtained by the council?
  • Who approved that expenditure?
  • Who initiated the original decision to commission external legal advice? In order to see that everything was above board and the rules adhered to, councillors will need to see the correspondence and any meeting records involving senior officers and/or senior councillors.
  • As with the libel indemnity, councillors will need to see the Wales Audit Office's own report into the matter. Whether that will be published in time for the November meeting is not known.
It seems unlikely that councillors will be presented with even a fraction of the information they need to read and understand in order to form a reasonable view, and it remains to be seen whether the council will invite along representatives of the Wales Audit Office to ensure that councillors hear more than just the council's justification.

The reality is that in a meeting scheduled to last three hours with lots of other matters on the agenda, the debate on the unlawful payments will probably get just half an hour. Moreover a meeting of the council is not a court of law or committee taking evidence.

The suspicion has to be that the council's leaders have decided,

a) that refusing to allow any discussion of the scandal does not look good
b) it would be quite handy to get the full council to sign up to the decisions and approve the payments even though the horse bolted long ago.

Backbench Labour and Independent councillors who are being asked to give their backing to the chief executive's exotic remuneration schemes may want to think long and hard about whether they are prepared to put their names to actions which could well end up being investigated by the police (just look at Caerphilly) without having seen all the evidence. That could be a rash and very dangerous thing to do.

What councillors should do, but almost certainly won't be allowed, is to vote on a motion to suspend the chief executive and have a full and thorough independent investigation of the affair. If Mark James, Kevin Madge, Meryl Gravell, Pam Palmer and the rest have nothing to fear, they should welcome an opportunity to set the record straight.


Anonymous said...

Regarding the libel indemnity, it will be interesting to see whether any sort of risk assessment had been carried out prior to its approval - no lawyer will guarantee 100% success, and proceedings such as this are notoriously expensive.

I seem to remember that Mrs Thompson's lawyers argued that the public funding of the counterclaim was in breach of Article 10 of the Human Rights Act.

Anonymous said...

When you see a pig flying over council offices in Carmarthen that is when you will get any semblance of transparency.It is doubtful that while they are in power those councillors will never know the meaning of the word.I hope I am around when they could be in opposition.I think they will be singing from a different hymn-sheet then.

Anonymous said...

No matter which way they try to squirm out of this, they cannot justify the cost to the taxpayer for legal advice and services that benefited ONE public servant!!! Where is the value for money to the taxpayer? Get shot of him and his cronies!

Anonymous said...

Excellent annonymous 17.52.That's it in a nutshell.

Anonymous said...

Should Mark James, Kevin Madge, Meryl Gravell, Pam Palmer and the rest take part or show a declaration of interest ?