Friday 14 February 2014

Council Crises: Gardening leave, a brown envelope, a petition, and a coup

Thanks to everyone who pointed out that the petitions link was not working. It is fixed now.

Earlier this evening it was announced that Mark James would be stepping aside "by mutual agreement" with the council leader, Kevin Madge, while the police carry out their investigations.

This came 15 days after the Wales Audit Office published its public interest reports, and huge and growing pressure for Mr James to be suspended.

The reason for the allegedly voluntary nature of this suspension, it is said, is that Meryl Gravell, Pam Palmer and the other "Independents" on the Executive Board were determined to fight to the last for their man, and Mr James was also unwilling to go anywhere.

Kevin Madge dithered for nearly two weeks before coming under immense pressure from Labour HQ in Cardiff which was aghast at what all this might be doing to the Labour vote. What finally tipped the balance is not clear, but the ultimate sanction would have been for the Welsh Government to send in the commissioners.

Faced with the prospect of all hands going down, agreement was reached on a compromise formula saying that it was all mutual and voluntary.

The council's statement is below, and it seems that the press office punished the wayward local press by giving the scoop to the Western Telegraph in Pembrokeshire.

Apart from Mr James, all the rest of his hand-picked team stay in place, and the acting chief executive will be his long-term colleague, Mr Dave Gilbert (awarded with an OBE last year).

Kevin Madge will now be hoping that all of this unpleasant stuff will go away. It won't, and Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM has called on everyone, regardless of their political views, to sign a petition of no confidence in the council's leadership.

The petition can be accessed here:

Statement by Cllr Kevin Madge, Leader of Carmarthenshire County Council:

“By mutual agreement the Chief Executive Mr Mark James will no longer undertake his duties as Chief Executive from now until Police enquiries concerning the two Wales Audit Office Public Interest Reports have been concluded.

“I welcome the police investigation which will give the public the assurance they deserve.

“The Auditor has not referred his reports to the police nor has he made any suggestions of any criminal wrongdoing, and I hope that the investigation can be concluded as quickly as possible in order for us as a council to move forward.

During the absence of the Chief Executive his role will be performed by the current Deputy Chief Executive Mr Dave Gilbert.”

Mr James added that he was absolutely certain that neither he nor any of his officers had done anything wrong but that it was only right and proper that  he should not be in the office whilst the police concluded their enquiries.   This would avoid any perception of undue influence being brought to bear.

Mr James hoped that the police enquiry could be conducted as quickly as possible as this was in everyone’s best interest.

Cllr Madge concluded:  “I have nothing further to say on this matter, there will be a full, frank and public debate on the reports at the Council meeting of February 27.”

A brown envelope 

A debate on an auditor's reports would not normally be expected to make gripping and jaw-dropping television, but what we saw today in Pembrokeshire was truly shocking.

Old Grumpy and Jacob Williams will have much more to say on their blogs in due course, but there is no doubt that what happened at the council meeting in Pembrokeshire was a taste of things to come in Carmarthenshire, except that the atmosphere here is even more poisoned and the issues even more serious.

The quality of debate and the questions was impressive. Councillors were for the most part allowed to speak freely without interruption or bullying from the chair. Apparently it is not always like that in Pembrokeshire.

Seated alongside the Chair and the monitoring officer was Mr Timothy Kerr, Carmarthenshire's favourite QC.

Almost four hours into the debate things took a sudden nosedive when Mr Kerr revealed almost as an aside that he had been given a piece of paper with quotes taken from newspaper cuttings. He read a few of them out. They ranged from "the chief executive should be suspended" to "things have got to change".

The piece of paper had been in an envelope passed to him in the car which had picked him up from the railway station. Mr Kerr smiled several times as the drama developed. He was clearly enjoying this little game.

After a lot of questioning, it turned out that the envelope had been given to him by the council's monitoring officer (in Carmarthenshire this would be Mrs Linda Rees Jones).

The individuals who had made the comments could well find themselves in difficulty for failing to declare a prejudicial interest and failing to withdraw from the meeting, it was suggested.

After a great deal more questioning, Mr Kerr read out a list of names of councillors which had apparently also been tucked into the envelope.

Amazingly it turned out that these were all councillors who were likely to vote against the council's leadership and senior officers.

Councillors who thought that the chief executive was the saviour of Pembrokeshire and that the ruling Independents (or IPPG+ councillors as they are known in the county next door) had done a fine job would, Mr Kerr opined, not fall foul of the rules for the most part unless they had been particularly outspoken.

Opposition councillors initially tried to stand their ground, but with the threat of disciplinary action hanging over them for expressing an opinion, they left the chamber.

Having got rid of the opposition, the council's leadership was left with an open goal.

While debate was still in progress, councillors repeatedly argued that they had not been allowed to see the advice Mr Kerr had given the council. How could they decide on something knowing that they had not seen all the evidence? The document remained firmly under lock and key, with Carmarthenshire County Council holding the key because this was jointly commissioned advice, and Carmarthenshire had not consented to disclosure.

We can guess what will happen on 27 February, when Carmarthenshire's councillors will be told that Pembrokeshire does not want disclosure.

A very lawful Coup d'Etat

The business with the envelope and the little list of names was bad enough, but even more spine chilling was the role played by the QC.

Mr Kerr, it will be recalled, was brought in by the council's top brass to provide advice on why the WAO was wrong to condemn the tax avoiding pension arrangements for senior council officers.

Today his role expanded dramatically to the point where he was actually dispensing instant rulings on who could and who could not vote on the auditor's reports. What was left of local democracy in Pembrokeshire was killed off by a London silk.


Anonymous said...

There must be so many bodies buried in this fiasco. The problems obviously go deeper and wider than anyone could imagine. Opposition councillors should be petitioning for independent forensic audits of all council accounts.

Anonymous said...

Surely Mr.Kerr should have left as well.
After all, he does have an interest !!

Anonymous said...

Great news for democracy, at last common spence has prevailed. Let's hope we can have a decent council who upholds the democratic process.

Ken Haylock said...

Anybody watching this will think we are in some failed ex-soviet state, rather than a Welsh County. This really cannot be allowed to stand! The obvious thought that springs to my mind is that it was ever thus, and that it's only because we can see it happening on webcasts now that the sheer rotten stench of proceedings has become obvious!

Also, as I have just opined at length in a comment elsewhere, despite the ambushing of the councillors by this QC, who is of course known for his novel and creative approaches to interpreting rules on behalf of his clients (which is how there comes to be a crisis in the first place), is it really the case that any elected councillor with sufficient brain cells to have an opinion on any contentious issue of great public interest is disqualified from participating in a debate about that issue in the council chamber? If the code of conduct actually means that, then the code of conduct is badly broken, and only credulous morons, the perpetually vacuous and the congenitally ignorant are qualified to be councillors. If the code of conduct doesn't mean that, and if the QC, he of the novel interpretations, has done it again, the councillors in Carms need to band together get their own legal opinion pronto, possibly from the Welsh Assembly's own law officers, possibly privately. And if that opinion is that the eminent and learned QC is... err... full of it... in the interpretation of the code of conduct he was expressing today, then I don't imagine that sharing that opinion widely in Pembrokeshire would increase harmony on the council to any great extent!

m1books said...

So at last, kicking and screaming no doubt, the CEO has been despatched for the time being.
I also watched some of the Pembs webcast. An appalling day for democracy in that County with a hugely costly lawyer becoming enmeshed in debate about whether councillors could or should vote on the no confidence motion. All Carms. Cllrs should watch this if only for the fact that at least the Chair directed the meeting and most cllrs were able to pitch questions and voice opinion without being shouted down. But it sadly degenerated into a pantomime of confused positions, frayed tempers, cllrs left the Chamber and the motion was withdrawn. Lessons to be learnt.

Anonymous said...

Brown envelopes smells of news of the world antics, wales should be ashamed of what is going on at pembrokeshire and carmarthenshire councils. Come on welsh assembly sort this shamefull practice out now!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Does this mean that Councillors who sign Rhodri Glyn's petition will not be allowed to vote?

Ken Haylock said...

Anon @ 14 February 2014 20:41

Under the QC's interpretation, they wouldn't even be allowed in the chamber during the debate!

Anonymous said...

My understanding of the Pembrokeshire situation is that councillors may have had a "predisposition" (allowed). This means that you have an inclination but that further facts might change your view. As most councillors are not in possession of all the facts because they have not been allowed to see them a predisposition is an understandable and allowed situation. As the QC and Monitoring Officet ought to know. Any councillor who believes that this is their view should feel free to return to the council chamber.

Tessa said...

The spirit of the Code of Conduct is about principles of integrity, morality and judgement. Not a legal trap to ensare the outspoken. I hope the councillors of Carmarthenshire will not allow themselves to be frightened off by this QC - and I expect with hindsight the Pembs ones will wish they hadn't done.

Anonymous said...

Councillors who have spoken to Rhodri Glyn at any time in the last 3 years will not be allowed to vote...but my guess is that Kevin will be gone by the 27th

Mrs Angry said...

As someone who spent nearly five hours watching this meeting, with jaw hanging open,I must correct a foul slur in this post, Cneifiwr. There was no brown envelope. I recall that someone clarified that it was in fact white. Like the driven snow.

I was transfixed by the events of the meeting and look forward to Part 2, Mr Kerr goes to Carmarthenshire.

(Hang on, the word check on comment moderation is 'True Love' are you trying to tell me something???)

Anonymous said...

Surely you mean people who have upset Kevin or the CEO in their whole lifetimes will not be allowed to speak!

Anonymous said...

If you ask me the QC's comments are absolute bulll***t

It's not for councillors to decide whether any unlawfulness has taken place - that decision has already been made by the Auditor. Councillors were not determining anything about the reports' content - only what to do as a result their conclusions.

The whole intention of paying thousands of pounds to bring the QC to the council was simply to put the frighteners on councillors into backing the Chief Executive.

The Labour 'leadership' of Carmarthenshire council would be absolutely stupid to bring the QC in now. The Labour Party is finished in the county.... Paying thousands of pounds again would simply be the final nail in the coffin.

Ken Haylock said...

The problem the councillors faced is that an eminent QC is looking them in the eye and telling them that they must leave the chamber or face catastrophic legal consequences, and since they had no forewarning of this ambush line from the QC, they had no legal advice of their own that contradicted it. Once they realise that they were basically duped by a conspiracy to frustrate democracy and accountability (and what happened there can scarcely be anything other than a conspiracy, given that the monitoring officer must have been asked by somebody to prepare the brown envelope and pass it to the QC well in advance of his arrival), they may be bursting a few blood vessels. As will anybody who watches the webcast of proceedings.

I suspect that in light of what happened in that chamber, if an absolute majority of the councillors in Pembrokeshire, to whit all those who would have voted for suspension had they not been tricked out of casting their vote, were to put their signatures to a joint letter to the relevant authorities in Cardiff, demanding that their council immediately be placed in special measures so that democratic accountability could be restored, the Assembly and the Auditor General would have no option but to comply speedily and with gusto. And I suspect there would be a lot more than the Chief Executive suspended, in the light of what happened in today's meeting!

Anonymous said...

Kevin will not win the vote of confidence ground swell of indies and llanelli labour will do for him !!!
The man from Glanaamman or Garnat will be gone

Anonymous said...

As I suspected would be the case, Mr Kerr did not attend the Pembs Extraordinary Meeting to present his opinion - he acted as general Counsel to the Chief Exec, the Chair and the Exec Board. This really is extraordinary, and undermines what little is left of democracy in these parts.

Do standing orders really allow such manipulation? The "prejudicial interest" point can only go so far. Members cannot reach an informed view until ALL the facts have been placed before them, and the Exec seem keen to ensure that some facts will not see the light of day.

But more broadly, it seems farcical that Members cannot express an adverse view on behaviour that has been branded as unlawful by a public watchdog, for fear that it would disqualify them from voting on a motion of no confidence. What a load of B***OCKS.

Anonymous said...

Any news of whether Meryl and Pam have been fingered by the Old Bill yet?

Anonymous said...

No doubt the great London QC is correct. Labour's 2000 Local Government Act introduced the concept of predetermination. This meant that a councillor could not take part in any decision where they had previously expressed an opinion. It was meant to cover planning applications but in practise it soon spread to cover any controversial local isssue.

The Coalition swept away this nonsense with their Localism Bill, but this only applies to England. So I presume the 2000 Act still applies to Wales, hence the QC's intervention.

Ken Haylock said...

Ref Pembrokeshire, I should have said an OPEN letter above - I am suggesting a very public "Dear Welsh Assembly, we the undersigned, an absolute majority of the elected members of Pembrokeshire County Council, have see our democratic will frustrated by the executive who have staged a coup d'etat and are now using council taxpayers money to prevent us from exercising democratic control, scrutinising their actions or holding anybody accountable. Please place our council into Special Measures immediately, send the commissioners in and the officers and the executive home and then have the drains up so that we the elected members can find out what has been happening here. Help us, Obi-Wan Kanobi, you're our only hope!".

Sent that to the Assembly, CC every media outlet in the country, along with a copy of the 'edited highlights' of that webcast of the council meeting yesterday and a selection of the press cuttings describing the way the meeting unfolded. If that doesn't push the assembly into action, nothing ever will, and perhaps the letter could then be forwarded to Eric Pickles for his comment instead.

Cneifiwr said...

Ken, something to consider would be a petition similar to the one launched yesterday in Carmarthenshire by Rhodri Glyn Thomas.

Anonymous said...

An opinion is simply that: an opinion. One then has to decide if that opinion is the result of predetermination or predisposition. It CANNOT be predetermination if the councillor is NOT in possession of all the facts and, if he or she were, they might change that opinion. Councillors are NOT in possession of all the facts and if any of them believe that, if they were, they MIGHT change their minds, they cannot be accused of predetermination.

If a councillor says: I think this supermarket will take trade from the high street so my inclination is against it he or she is not saying I am CERTAIN this supermarket will take trade from the high street. If persuasive evidence comes forward that it will not do so, the councillor can then make a predetermination for or against the supermarket because he or she feels in possession of enough facts to make that decision.

ALL councillors are allowed to have predisposition. Indeed, if they did not, no-one could speak about anything. Which would no doubt please Mr James but we were not put on this earth to please him only to follow the law.

Tessa said...

Instead of gleefully collecting newspaper cuttings, shouldn't the monitoring officers in their proper role have been advising the councillors of their possible blunders? The QC might have mentioned it, as well, as advisor to (and paid by) the council, no? Or maybe he was unaware until he received the grubby little envelope, at which point he must have creamed his eminent silky pants.

Ken Haylock said...

My thoughts about an open letter from a majority of the councillors is that it can be confidentially walked around individual councillors for their signature, perhaps by somebody independent and non-partisan but likely to be trusted by all parties, on the basis that it will not see the light of day unless and until there is an agreed majority of the councillors signed up to it. Clearly there is a small self-interested inner clique that manufactured that coup yesterday, and there must be a large number of ordinary councillors within their group who will clearly feel desperately uncomfortable with what was notionally done in their name, but are perhaps not brave enough to be 'the one' who puts their head over the parapet. If suddenly half + 1, or maybe even two thirds of individual councillors could openly write to the Welsh Government demanding immediate Special Measures to clean out the augean stables, then the possibility that individuals on 'the other team' could suffer retaliation from the regime is greatly reduced or negated. It would also negate the criticism that any attempt to investigate the current leadership is a partisan attempt to seize power; if Special Measures are imposed while investigators come in then none of the parties gains partisan advantage!

Finally, there's an 'eggs in one basket' argument; the petition approach in Carmarthenshire is great - I've signed - but of course if it doesn't work in Carms then it's unlikely to work any better in Pembs. Conversely, if it does work in Carms, then the domino effect should bring change sweeping through Pembs as well! Equally, if the letter approach brings the Commissioners in to run Pembs, it seems unlikely to me that the waves created won't up-end the Carmarthenshire Junta's boat anyway, even if the petition gains no traction!

Anonymous said...

They are elected by us to be brave on our behalf. If they cannot show bravery (and let's face it none of them are going to die for us on this so bravery is a relative term here) then they should not stand or stand again.

Ken Haylock said...

Yes, 'bravery' in this context means "willing to risk being kicked off the safe ward gravy train for not asking 'How High, Sir?' quickly enough when being ordered to jump...". So a pretty low level of courage, really...

caebrwyn said...

Anon 09.23
It appears that the part of the 2011 Localism Act relating to predetermiation does apply to Wales, see
There is also guidance from 11KBW which suggests that common law on the subject is still developing, see

However, the Explanatory Note to this is clear;
'Predetermination occurs where someone has a closed mind, with the effect that they are
unable to apply their judgment fully and properly to an issue requiring a decision. Decisions
made by councillors later judged to have predetermined views have been quashed. The
clause makes it clear that if a councillor has given a view on an issue, this does not show that
the councillor has a closed mind on that issue, so that if a councillor has campaigned on an
issue or made public statements about their approach to an item of council business, he or
she will be able to participate in discussion of that issue in the council and to vote on it if it
arises in an item of council business requiring a decision.'

Ken Haylock said...

So the Pembrokeshire councillors were misled, live on camera no less, for the sole purpose of thwarting the democratic process? And the decision to do this was presumably a joint enterprise, involving at the very least the QC and the monitoring officer, plus prima facie the two pro-regime councillors who had been primed to declare an interest and leave but who then apparently came back, after having dome so (meaning they clearly had their fingers crossed or something).

If an officer or their proxy apparently deliberately misleading councillors to thwart the democratic process amounts to misconduct in public office, streamed to the internet as it happened, then a joint enterprise to do the same thing would be 'conspiracy to commit miscoduct in public office', would it not? My, wouldn't _that_ be an interesting criminal investigation!?