Sunday 9 February 2014

Council Crisis: Private and Confidential

Last week Carmarthenshire County Council's press office published an extraordinary statement attacking the Wales Audit Office, and it appended an exchange of e-mails between its acting Head of Law, Mrs Linda Rees Jones, and Mr Geraint Norman, who represents the Wales Audit Office in Carmarthen.

The e-mails cover the period from January to August 2012, and the council is claiming that they show the WAO changed its mind over the lawfulness of the libel indemnity.

The WAO has responded by saying that it stands by its report, and that the correspondence published is selective, the implication being that the e-mails were carefully chosen to try to show the auditors in an unfavourable light.

Something which struck several readers was that the exchange begins with an e-mail from Geraint Norman headed "Private and Confidential". The e-mail is dated 20 January 2012, which was a couple of days before the Executive Board met to approve the libel indemnity, and what emerges is that the WAO had grave concerns about what the council was doing and urged it to take independent legal advice.

The subsequent twists and turns in the saga need not detain us here, but publication raises the question of whether the council sought permission to publish correspondence marked "Private and Confidential". It would seem not.

Carmarthenshire County Council is notorious for its lack of openness and transparency, but those of us who have been campaigning and arguing for greater openness recognise that public officials sometimes need to be able to talk to each other privately, and that there has to be trust between them if sensitive and difficult issues are to be resolved.

The message this sends to other public bodies, the public and commercial interests is that you need to be very careful in your dealings with the council, and that you cannot trust the authority.

In this case there is a strong public interest in disclosure, but selective disclosure by one party to the dispute only increases the damage to public confidence.

There is very much more information which needs to be published, including the advice provided by Mr Timothy Kerr QC to the council on the chief executive's pension arrangements, which the council refused to show to the Wales Audit Office.

Even more interesting is the report produced by Mrs Rees Jones which went before the Executive Board on 23 January 2012. The report was and remains exempt from publication, and there are strong suspicions that it was "sexed up". Why has Mrs Rees Jones not released that?

Also relevant to this sorry saga is all of the internal correspondence which passed between Mrs Rees Jones, the chief executive and others.

The council is adamant that Mr James had no input into the report, but at least one e-mail exists showing that Mrs Rees Jones wanted to meet him to discuss the report before it went to the Executive Board.

There is a great deal at stake here for Mr James and Mrs Rees Jones, both personally and professionally, and this is territory which should properly be the subject of a police investigation, rather than a public slanging match, and the police need to move quickly to secure such evidence as still exists.

The majority of elected councillors have never had any say in what has happened, and the likelihood is that they will find themselves on the sidelines watching events unfold like the rest of us. However one of the things they can begin to get to grips with is the operation of the council's press office, which has played a central role in this and so many other scandals.

Attempts recently by Cllr Darren Price (Plaid) and others to gain an insight into the workings of the press office and who is involved in producing and authorising press releases were blocked from on high.

Recent events show that tackling the source of so much that has brought the authority into disrepute in recent years has to be a priority.


The council's sudden discovery of the joys of transparency has its limits. The council refused a freedom of information request from Jacqui Thompson asking it to disclose correspondence with Towy Community Church on the grounds that it would cost too much to dig all the stuff out. The council was over-ruled by the Information Commisisoner, so it then refused on the grounds that it was a vexatious request. This time the ICO has upheld the council's decision, largely it seems because of the verdict of the libel case.

Jacqui has most likely reached the end of the road on that one, but any other members of the public who feel that it is in the public interest that we know more about the relationship between the evangelical sect and the council might want to try their hand.

The advice would seem to be to limit your requests to a relatively short period of time (e.g. a year), and not have a history of upsetting the council.


Anonymous said...

Does anyone know how many press officers are employed by CCC; their annual salaries and comparative data of those in other counties/organisations? This would be v interesting.

Anonymous said...

By releasing these documents into the public arena I see no reason why CCC should withhold other documents e.g. Spekers advice, emails between Mark and Linda etc from the public's view. Given CCC have set a precedent then Mr Tillman would have a hard time refusing disclosure of these documents under the FOI Act.