Monday 17 February 2014

Council Crisis: Dirty tricks and some correspondence - Updated

As we begin Week Three of the crisis sparked by the publication of the WAO's public interest reports, attention is now being focused on the precise nature of the chief executive's extended holiday/leave of absence/exile/voluntary suspension/temporary withdrawal from office, and the council is being asked to explain any terms and conditions that come attached to this mutually agreed arrangement.

A reader writes that he had never truly appreciated the power of the pen until he sent a letter to the First Minister, Carwyn Jones, late last week calling for the chief executive of Carmarthenshire County Council to be suspended. Within a couple of hours he learned that Mr James would be "stepping aside" to spend more time with his legal text books.

Llanelli AM Nia Griffith (Lab) also received several letters from concerned constituents, and to her credit they received a speedy response. The replies are similar, and include passages which regurgitate parts of an earlier statement issued by Labour's press office in Cardiff about getting the Welsh Local Government Association (Deputy Presiding Officer Kevin Madge) to carry out a review. She also makes it clear that she thinks the council should accept the WAO reports in full.

The really interesting bit comes in the middle where Ms Griffith tells her correspondents that:

In checking up on the procedures, I understand that the Leader has discovered that in Carmarthenshire County Council the Leader does not have the power to suspend the Chief Executive, but that this is a decision for full council. That is why you read in the Western Mail on Thursday that  he has asked him “to stand down voluntarily”.  I understand that the Leader will be taking this matter to full council. (technically providing he gets the support from the Executive Board  – support which will be forthcoming from the Labour members but I cannot speak for the Independent members) .

The council's constitution has been chopped and changed, amended and "improved" so many times in its short life that it resembles the sort of fence you see on some Welsh farms. A bit of old tractor here, a pallet or two there, some wire, a door and a great deal of bailer twine holding the thing together, and the effect of most of these enhancements is to say that the chief executive will decide what should be done.

On the subject of suspensions, however, this abused document is clear:

“The Head of Paid Service, Monitoring Officer and Chief Finance Officer may be suspended whilst an investigation takes place into alleged misconduct. That suspension will be on full pay and last no longer than two months. No other disciplinary action may be taken in respect of any of the above officers except in accordance with a recommendation in a report made by a designated independent person appointed by the Council’s Investigation Committee.” (Rules of Procedure, Officer Employment Rules)

The Head of Paid Service is the chief executive, by the way. Having dealt with suspension pending investigation of alleged misconduct, the constitution goes on to explain that dismissal requires the approval of the full council.

We can only guess that this interesting interpretation of the rules came from Mr James and Mrs Rees Jones, and that it was supported by Meryl, Pam and the rest of the Independent contingent.

The final bit suggests that Kevin Madge is or was planning to put a motion before full council to suspend Mr James with the proviso that it would have to be supported by the Independents. Hell is more likely to suffer a cold snap before that happens.



It seems that the rules which apply are not the council's constitution in this case, but a whole handbook dedicated to the conditions of service for local authority chief executives produced by the Joint Negotiating Committee for Local Authority Chief Executives (how many other jobs have an 88 page document setting out an employee's rights?). A copy last updated in 2009 can be found here.


And finally....

Back over in Pembrokeshire Cllr Jacob Williams has written a fascinating report on Friday's extraordinary council meeting, complete with its dirty tricks, stooges, envelope in the back of the limo and coup d'etat. 

For those of you like Cneifiwr who had not watched the whole 5 hours of action, an interesting new fact to have emerged is that Mr Timothy Kerr QC wrote not one but two separate legal advices to Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire in September and November 2013.

Pembrokeshire's councillors will now be allowed to see the documents, albeit in redacted form.


John Dixon said...

" support which will be forthcoming from the Labour members"

Using what we might call the "Kerr-Pembrokeshire" rules, doesn't that statement disqualify all Labour members from taking part, on the grounds of expressing a view in advance?

Cneifiwr said...

I think it does John. Sian Caiach pointed out in a comment on Jacob's blog that the difference between the two counties is that the Executive Board and Labour Party in Carmarthenshire have probably disqualified themselves from taking part if Mr Kerr applies the same interpretation of the rules.

This could be fun to watch.

Anonymous said...

Nia Griffiths is right: check the JNC guidlelines, that is the national employment conditions of chief executives. I managed to find a copy on some other Council's website. Only an investigation committee set up by full council has the power to suspend a chief exec or monitoring officer, and only an independent person has the power to suspend them for more than 2 months. Someone has a good union!

Cneifiwr said...

Thank you Anon @9.49. I'll see if I can dig out a link.

Anonymous said...

If I catch you snooping around my farm and making disparaging remarks about the state of my fences I will be forced to let the dogs loose, or get in touch with Mr Kerr. The use of decorative orange baler twine and pallets is called recyling and an ancient Welsh tradition.
Stick to the council g'boi and leave the farming to us who know about these things.
Y Ffermwr

Tessa said...

Re. QC Tim Kerr-"Ching" - wouldn't it have been moral/ethical whatever for him to explain, prior to stuffing the cheque into his pocket, that his advice was of limited use being AFTER the funding decision had been made? That by providing advice (to fit?) AFTER the decision was clearly just an arse-covering execrcise, protecting those parties who had influenced/made the decision and who wrote the cheque. Although the cheque was drawn on public funds. And this work for one, paid for by another, continues! I haven't read the "Bar Standards Board Handbook" - but I would hope it included something in the spirit of the Councillors' and Officers' Codes of Conduct.

Anonymous said...

… and yet despite all this, ITV poll shows Carmarthen East & Dinefwr as a parliamentary Labour gain from Plaid. Amazing.

Cneifiwr said...

Anon @10.18 As a member of a farming family, I speak with some knowledge of these matters, and have done similar "temporary" fencing jobs at home.

It reminds me of the old joke that if it wasn't for all the bale twine, Wales would have floated away from England years ago.

Mrs Angry said...

This thing about the twine, Cneifiwr, presumably is from the same tradition of support as the bit of old string keeping your trousers up?

Cneifiwr said...

Indeed Mrs A. I find that string around the waist and trouser legs helps keep the ferrets in.

Anonymous said...

Let the ferrets out to do their worst - please!

Anonymous said...

If I might digress from twine-related anecdotes, and return to the recent goings-on....

From what I saw of the Pembs meeting, and have read subsequently, I did have to wonder what Mr Kerr's brief was. If it was to thwart the no confidence motion, then he was a brilliant success. But as far as the politics of the matter are concerned, it seems to me that it was an absolute "Kerr-crash", if you'll excuse the pun.

The Cabinet appears to have won the day by the use of dodgy ruses and dissembling, and with all due respect to Mr Kerr and the undoubted correctness of his legal views, to this observer it looked as if they were sold a load of mumbo-jumbo by a snake-oil salesman. It certainly did nothing to inspire confidence in the administration.

Perhaps Cneifiwr can lend them some twine to help them keep it together?

Anonymous said...

You keep the twine to hold your pants up Cneifiwr.
It's rope they are short of.