Sunday 23 February 2014

Council Crisis: Extraordinary Meeting

Carmarthenshire County Council has published the agenda for next Thursday's extraordinary meeting to discuss the pension and libel indemnity scandals.

Mark James may have left the building, but there is no sign that the council is about to wave the white flag and back down in its war with the Wales Audit Office.

Indeed, the tone of the reports prepared by officers for the meeting is wholly unrepentant. The report on the libel indemnity was co-written by acting Head of Law, Linda Rees Jones, and for reasons which are not clear by Roger Jones (Director of Resources).

The Libel Indemnity

The documents published with the agenda add little to what has already been released, although they include for the first time a copy of the legal advice sought by the Wales Audit on the libel indemnity. The covering report also reveals that Mr James is now funding his defence of Jacqui Thompson's appeal himself.

Not released is the legal advice provided by Adam Speker, Mark James's barrister. The report prepared for councillors persists in citing Mr Speker's opinions as though he were an independent source of legal advice rather than someone being paid to act for one side in a lawsuit. Using the same yardstick, the report should also have set out the views of Jacqui Thompson's counsel.

It states that the WAO report makes no allegations of misconduct by members or officers, although neglects to mention that after reading the two public interest reports the police and Crown Prosecution Service felt that an investigation into possible criminal wrongdoing was justified.

Mrs Rees Jones also points out to councillors that under the constitution, officers have delegated powers to approve indemnities, and they did not actually need to ask the Executive Board at all.

However, because they recognised that this escapade might just be a little bit controversial, they took matter to the Executive Board, then headed by Meryl Gravell with Kevin Madge as deputy, and Pam Palmer as another leading light. The Executive Board, as we know, was so enthusiastic that according to Mrs Rees Jones it decided it did not need any further legal advice, and so rubber stamped the legal action.

Mrs Rees Jones has therefore rather neatly reminded everybody that they were all in it together.

Also not released is the complete correspondence between Mrs Rees Jones and the WAO. Readers may remember that the WAO described an earlier release of e-mails as "selective", and that Kevin Madge has been promising to put everything on the table.

The council's justification for the libel indemnity rests almost wholly on an interpretation of one sentence in the Explanatory Notes to a Welsh Assembly Order which says that the powers granted by the 2006 Order are in addition to any existing powers.

The council is interpreting this, it seems, to mean that when the Welsh Government expressly forbade indemnities for council officers bringing libel actions, it was giving councils a new power.

Next time you tell your children or grandchildren that they are not allowed to wreck the house, try telling them that what you are really doing is giving them new rights and freedoms. Well, at least it will confuse them, just as it will some of the befuddled councillors on the Independent benches.

The Pension Pay Supplement

This arrangement, branded unlawful by the WAO, has now been withdrawn. It is not clear whether the money paid to Mark James will be clawed back.

The documents released include a fairly short report produced by a company called Total Reward Projects Ltd based in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex recommending the pay supplement. This was presented to the Executive Board with a covering report produced by assistant chief executive, Paul Thomas. Mr Thomas's report concludes that there are no legal implications in implementing this new policy (presumably on the advice of Mrs Linda Rees Jones). Oops.

Unlike their colleagues in Pembrokeshire, councillors in Carmarthenshire will also be allowed to see the legal advice provided by Mr Timothy Kerr QC dealing with the pension pay supplement. At least, they will be shown some of it, because councillors in Pembrokeshire were told that there were two separate pieces of advice produced in September and November 2013.The only document attached to the Carmarthenshire report is dated September.

How all this will all pan out on Thursday we shall see, but in reality the important decisions will not now be taken in Carmarthen, but by the Gloucestershire Constabulary and the Crown Prosecution Service.


caebrwyn said...

The reason the Director of Resources, Roger Jones, is involved in the report, is that both he, and Linda Rees Jones are the two officials authorised within the Constitution to instigate libel claims on behalf of the Head of Paid Service, Mr James. A unique arrangement.

Mr Jones also co-wrote the original report to the Executive Board in Jan 2012.

You are right, the only reason it went to the Executive Board at all was for someone else to wield the rubber stamp on what the officials knew was a controversial (to say the least) move.

KLS said...

Interesting to read your comment that "Crown Prosecution Service felt that an investigation into possible criminal wrongdoing was justified". I've never seen a statement to this effect, only that Dyfed-Powys, CPS and an external force were liaising. Dyfed-Powys then referred the matter to Gloucestershire colleagues. Or do I have this wrong?

Cneifiwr said...

Thanks KLS. Dyfed Powys Police said that there were aware of the WAO reports before they received formal complaints from Plaid Cymru. They then discussed the matter with the CPS, following that they decided to refer the matter to Gloucestershire.

The Gloucestershire Constabulary is now beginning its investigations, and eventually a file will be passed to the CPS which will have to decide whether there are grounds for a prosecution, as in the case of Caerphilly.

Unless the council backs down, there may also be separate litigation between the WAO and the council.

Sentinel said...

Whether or not there is sufficient evidence to prove that there has been misconduct in public office, I don't know.

What I do know, is the bahaviour of some people has been unethical. I am concerned that people in high office can't see that they have done wrong.

Cneifiwr said...

Unethical without a doubt, Sentinel. There is also a widespread feeling that the WAO has only uncovered the tip of the iceberg.

What is important now is that anyone with any evidence of wrongdoing in other matters takes it to the police in confidence.

passerby said...

a councillor said to me, is it worth going on thursday? which gave the impression of some can't be bothered.

if it comes down to evry single vote counts and some can't be arsed.

if some will cling onto yes i believe we were right and vote no, and the other half vote to accept yes to accept the wao findings, still leaves something all councillors should be asking each other, was the action actually exeptional circumstances?decide for themselves, and ask the same question to qc (if he turns up). all is well jones saying to council yes it was exeptional (but that;s their interpretation) and follow that advice

Anonymous said...

Maybe what they really meant was: if I don't go on Thursday no-one will know which side I am on - something only said by those on the wrong side.

Wavell said...

A vote is of no relevance in this case.
It is out of the Councillors hands and in the hands of the WAO and Gloucester Constabulary.
But it will be worth watching.

Anonymous said...

I see that the people of Kiev have been to the presidential
Palace to see where their money was spent,I wonder if
There is a chance of a tour of jail hill to see where ours
Is being spent.

passerby said...

could be anon 14:37 . if i were to reveal which party would raise an eyebrow. as long as a councillor has an opportunity to debate, all should be taken whether it has any relevance as wavell mentions.

or is it a meaningless plaid motion to vote in no confidence?
without a relevant debate or voices heard, even if it's covering old ground. they are all now in a position to ask questions, or would a debate put themselves in an awkward position. and then find out exactly what is going on there. as far as people see, you got 74 councillors and not all of them knew what was going on out of view

and maybe after a debate, they will realise just exactly what is going on and vote for rather than against.
if kevin madge wasn't there, it'll be someone else from the labour group.

would the pembrokeshire meeting have been relevant without a debate? some 5 hours and 3 mins worth revealed quite a lot, and most wouldn't have had as much info into what really was going on without the motion.

then again, maybe carms is more laxadaisical compared to feisty pembrokeshire.

if timothy kerr is there, i really do hope someone will ask him if he thought the idemnity was exceptional (in his humble opinion).. knowing our luck, he may say no and try to wrangle out of it with a but by saying something like mark james is more sensitive to criticism than someone else. and comes back down to opinion.

then again, there wouldn't be any harm in asking the auditor the same question too. just to balance the debate out a bit :)

Anonymous said...

You can actuaaly do that - examine council financial records, for 3 weeks around April/May each year. Your councillor or the admin officers can give you the details for this year.

Sentinel said...

I am aware of the police being told about a numberr of things, but they chose to ignore them.

I am told that if the auditors went through the books, they'd see a lot more skuldugery.

As someone else alluded, there doesn't seem to be much control of the way money is spent on services and equipment. Although there are Councillors on scrutiny committees, I doubt they have the wherewithal to detect inappropriate spending. Some - I am sure - have trouble tying their shoe laces.

Anonymous said...

And the very cosy relationships between finance departments, internal and external auditors.

passerby said...

mileage allowance is a good place to look for a forensic auditor

Anonymous said...

And "refreshments"!

passerby said...

councillor is attending tomorrow now.