Sunday 2 February 2014

Council Crisis - Taking Stock

As we prepare for another turbulent week, it is worth taking a few moments to reflect on the events of the last few days and look at some of the other council stories which have got lost in the storm.

According to County Hall insiders one senior figure in the ruling administration reckons that it's all just headlines which will be forgotten in a few days. They could not be more wrong.

Councillors, the Plaid office in Ammanford, the blogs and the press have noticed a big change in the public mood. There is real anger and disgust at what has gone on, and things are no different in Pembrokeshire.

Perhaps this is part of a wider shift in public opinion across Wales. Yesterday saw a large demonstration against council cuts, particularly as they effect post-16 Welsh medium education, in Merthyr Tydfil. In Ceredigion a Cymdeithas yr Iaith protest against the Welsh Government's cuts and broken promises attracted around 50 people in Cardigan yesterday, including young families and pensioners, despite appalling weather conditions.

In Carmarthenshire events unfolded thick and fast on Thursday and Friday, and at times it was difficult to keep up. One of the things which is likely to turn out to be very significant is a statement put out by Mr Anthony Barrett in response to the council's extraordinary press release on the affair.

In its statement the council sought in classic Carmarthenshire fashion to insinuate that the Wales Audit Office was either incompetent or lacking in integrity because it had "appeared to change its mind" over the libel indemnity. That, it turns out, was utterly untrue.

In summary the auditor had advised the council to get legal opinion on the legality of the indemnity before going ahead.

That advice was either ignored or rejected, and the trial went ahead including Mr James's unlawful counterclaim. Kevin Madge's claims at an Executive Board meeting on 6 January that the council had tried to settle the case before it reached court now look very hollow.

When the auditor became aware that the council had ignored his recommendation, he obtained his own specialist advice and provided a copy to the council in September 2013.

Questions which need to be answered include:
  • Who saw the auditor's advice in September 2013? Were Kevin Madge and other senior councillors made aware of it?
  • Who was involved in the 30 January press release? Mark James, almost certainly, but what part did Kevin Madge have to play in it?
  • It is also extremely likely that Kevin Madge and most likely other senior councillors saw the auditor's "consideration reports" back in early November. Those reports gave the council a chance to back down, but it did not. Given that Kevin Madge knew what the reports published on 30 January would say, why did he continue to defend the actions of the chief executive and others to the hilt?
What happens next?

All the indications are that the chief executive, Kevin Madge and the rest will try to ride out the storm. The most obvious tool will be delaying tactics.

The opposition will try to call an extraordinary meeting of the full council. The next full meeting of the council is scheduled to take place on 12 February, and as things stand that will be taken up with approving a draft budget for 2013/14. Opposition councillors have made it clear that consideration of the budget should be postponed because of the breach of trust which has occurred. The Plaid group has also been arguing strongly for a complete revision of the budget proposals put together by senior officers, proposals which are being backed as usual by Kevin Madge, Pam Palmer and the rest.

The constitution, which has been repeatedly tinkered with in recent years, says that councillors, the monitoring officer or the chair of council may ask the chief executive for an extraordinary meeting. There is nothing to say that he must agree to the request.

The monitoring officer just happens to be Linda Rees Jones, the acting Head of Law, who is also heavily implicated in the scandals, while the Chair of Council (Terry Davies, Lab) is no more likely to call an EGM than turkeys would vote for Christmas.

It is quite possible that opposition councillors will find that any request for an EGM is either rejected or put off for as long as possible, with Kevin Madge and the chief executive arguing that it is essential that the budget is dealt with first. There have already been suggestions that the auditor's reports should wait until the scheduled meeting of the full council on 7 March, which is also outside the one month time limit set by the auditor.

Kevin Madge: "Cuts of Biblical Proportions" as the gravy train rolls on

While all this is going on, evidence continues to emerge of the council's warped spending priorities.

A recent freedom of information request showed that the council spent £120,000 on rent, fees and hospitality at Parc y Scarlets in 2012-13. That is a backdoor subsidy, and also completely unnecessary because the council has plenty of venues of its own where corporate junkets could be held for a fraction of the cost.

The £120,000 comes on top of the refinancing package and the Marstons car park deal which gave the club the best part of £1 million in additional aid in 2012-13 alone.

Another report shows that the council spent a staggering £2.8 million on external consultants in 2012-13. A large chunk of this was for technical consultancy, but not all of it. One of the difficulties, the report notes, is deciding what actually constitutes consultancy. Not included, it seems, were modest fees paid to Rev Matt Bownds of Carmarthen's Living Word Church (notable members of the flock include Mr James) for providing soft skills training courses.

The list goes on and on, and includes other such essential items as Towy Community Church's bowling alley and the relocation of hundreds of council staff from council owned premises to rented office space in the Eastgate development.

Then there is the huge amount spent on legal fees. Much of it is incurred in child protection cases and the like, but significant sums have been spent on unnecessary legal advice and court actions (and not just against Jacqui Thompson).

For well over a year now Kevin Madge has been warning of massive cuts to spending coming down the track. You would think that the Labour-Independent coalition would have tried to rein in wasteful spending and ensure that every penny the council could get was clawed in from deals such as the Scarlets-Marstons car park sale.

When you look at the list of proposed spending cuts, many of them involve relatively small sums but will have devastating consequences. Quite a few of the 51 proposals included in the recent consultation would result in savings that are dwarfed by money being spent on consultants, lawyers, Parc y Scarlets, the proposed new outsourced "extra care facility" in Llanelli, the council's press and PR operations, etc., etc.

Closing a respite care home for disabled children would save £200,000 per year. Weigh that against the fees paid to external consultants. Cutting spending on the Mentrau Iaith and other language services still further would save just £60,000. The council spends more on fighting the chief executive's legal battles and posh cars.

Perhaps if less had been lavished on Parc y Scarlets, the future of playing fields, bowling greens and cricket pitches used by ordinary people would not now be in doubt.

No wonder the Auditor General for Wales recently issued another report which looks at the challenges facing local authorities. The introductory blurb reads as follows:

"[The report] explores the effectiveness of their financial planning, their approach to financial decision making and the actions they are taking to minimise the impact of significant budget cuts. It also considers the extent to which councils understand the impact of their actions".

The report highlights quite a few examples of what it considers to be good practice by councils around Wales. Carmarthenshire, which likes to boast that it is the best run local authority in the country, is nowhere to be seen.


Owen said...

I might've missed it in the report itself, but is there any clue as to who wrote/amended what's been called the "sexed-up dossier"?

If they were an officer, writing a report that supported (unlawful) libel indemnity for officers, changing the 2008 legal advice from "cautious and reserved terms" to "unequivocal" in support, surely that's a huge conflict of interest?

Isn't it a bit like CCC re-writing (presumably, quite expensive) legal advice to suit their own ends?

Cneifiwr said...

There was an e-mail from the acting Head of Law, Linda Rees Jones, to Mark James saying that they needed to talk about the report before it went to the Executive Board.

A fairly big clue!

Anonymous said...

I'm not saying this is the case but if a legal advice was deliberately misrepresented when reported tto elected officials, wouldn't that constitute misconduct in public office ?

Anonymous said...

And the moral of the story is that you should never let your actions be influenced by the fear of losing your job, title or privileges.

"It is the strange fate of man, that even in the greatest of evils the fear of the worst continues to haunt him."

It is not too late to speak out!

Cneifiwr said...

Anon @17.04 There have already been accusations of gross misconduct, and more and more people seem to be coming to that conclusion.

Anonymous said...

@ Anon 17:04 ... "IF" legal advice has been deliberately misrepresented then the act constitutes gross misconduct and summary dismissal.

Ken Haylock said...

My reading of the basis on which the police were involved in investigating... Caerphilly was it?... and the Chief Executive of that council suspended, is that he was allegedly involved in the decision making process around his own remuneration, thus having him participate in decision making on a matter in which he has a pecuniary interest; the allegation being investigated is of misconduct in public office. The auditor in this case in Carmarthenshire has suggested that the Chief Executive similarly participated in the meeting that agreed his pension arrangements and the libel indemnity. Surely therefore exactly the same substantive allegation is made by that suggestion in the PI report that the Chief Executive participated in setting his own remuneration by way of the pension tax dodge and the libel indemnity; that's misconduct in public office .

What is required is somebody, councillor or otherwise, ideally somebody of standing who the police will have to do more than fob off, to formally report Mr James to the police, based on the suspicions documented in the Public Interest report. Given what is already in the public domain, the police will surely have no option but to investigate, and have powers to seek search warrants etc that would enable them to obtain documents, access to email archives etc that will never otherwise see the light of day. Basically, if there is evidence of misconduct in public to find, the police will surely find it. But only if they investigate. Which they won't do if nobody makes a formal complaint to them.

If the police are investigating, it would be surely impossible for anybody to oppose Mr James and anybody else implicated being suspended on full pay while the investigation proceeded. Perhaps this might break the spell, ands free up e.g. members of the audit committee to talk about whether they were told the truth about the legal advice the council sought and was given, and if not, who exactly lied to them, and who else knew they were being lied to but said nothing; that too would surely be misconduct in public office, and who knows what a probe into that question might reveal.

If it turns out they were told the truth, and rubber stamped the various illegal plans anyway, then that's also relevant because it would make the position of members of the audit committee who signed off on these activities equally untenable. And inexplicable...

Anonymous said...

And the person who would fire the CEO? Madge! Can you see that happening?

Which one knows where the most bodies are buried?

Emlyn Uwch Cych said...

I'm telling you: wheels within wheels, pinnies and handshakes, ignore the poor blighters who pay the bills and suffer the consequences.

Ken Haylock said...

And... the local MP has now called the police in. Job done, hopefully - there should ideally be a full investigation without fear, favour or delay. I assume there is no evidence that the Chief Executive has the same hold over the Dyfed Powys police that he seems to have over the elected councillors? If they can do the job, all to the good. If they can't, then I'm sure there's a police force in England that would be happy to investigate from afar.

If the elected leadership _don't_ suspend the two officers concerned the moment the police open a formal investigation, the case for putting the council into special measures to take the current leadership out the loop and do what has to be done over their heads is overwhelming. Equally compelling is the idea that a period in special measures would be a great opportunity to 'have all the drains up' and see what else has been going on.