Saturday 31 January 2015

The revolution will not be televised

As Caebrwyn notes here, a whole 12 months have passed since the Wales Audit Office published its damning public interest reports on Carmarthenshire County Council. Publication caused an unprecedented furore and cast a welcome spotlight on the truly dire state of local democracy in Carmarthenshire, so now is a good time to ask what if anything has changed since January 2014.

Hardly anything is the answer.

The council refused to accept that paying its libel indemnity provisions were unlawful and merely suspended the relevant clause from its constitution pending clarification of the law. The unlawful pension fund opt-out enjoyed by the chief executive was rescinded, but as Mark James subsequently told staff in the council's newsletter, this was only "for now".

Nobody was brought to book, nobody resigned, and all those responsible are still running the council.

Noting changes to HMRC rules

It is unfair to place all the blame on Mark James himself because it takes more than one to tango. Before we go on, let's take a brief look back at what some of the fuss was all about. The pensions scandal for example.

The scheme, which was identical to one introduced by Pembrokeshire County Council, was the subject of a paper drawn up by council officers. It has never been made clear who asked for this report to be produced, and there was just one beneficiary: the chief executive.

The pension pay supplement, as it was known, was approved by a meeting of the council's Executive Board on 14 November 2011. It was not advertised on the published agenda ahead of the meeting, but nevertheless found its way onto the actual agenda of the meeting under the heading "Biennial Review - JNC Officers".

Under the council's constitution the only people who can put something onto the agenda of an Executive Board Meeting are the chief executive himself or the council leader (Meryl Gravell at the time).

It remains a mystery which one of those two introduced the agenda item.

The proposal to implement the unlawful scheme was then approved by the Board. Some board members have since retired and a couple of others gone to the backbenches, but Kevin Madge (Labour), Pam Palmer (Ind) and Meryl Gravell (Ind) are still there, running the show.

Not only was the item not advertised on the published agenda, but it was discussed and approved behind closed doors.

The minutes of the meeting covering this matter stated only that "Members also noted the impact of the changes in the HMRC rules". No mention of the pension opt-out or the supplement.

The chief executive is responsible for producing the minutes of these meetings, and the utterly misleading wording was approved - unanimously as always - by the Board itself, including Kevin Madge, Meryl Gravell and Pam Palmer.

All of them have escaped censure for what was nothing less than an act of utter dishonesty which has cost the council vast sums of money and undermined the Dyfed Pension Fund (see Jacob Williams on that point).

All those lesser citizens who have been fined heavily and had their names published in disgrace for transgressions ranging from dropping fag ends to putting out their rubbish on the wrong day might wonder what happened to justice.

Culture Change

In the aftermath of the scandals, Kevin Madge asked the WLGA to carry out a peer review of the council's governance arrangements.

The resulting report made 39 recommendations, including a call for a change of culture, but rather than move on to implementing the recommendations, the council decided to set up another working group to consider which of the proposals might "fit in" (Kevin Madge's words) with the way things are done in Carmarthenshire.

At the meeting which discussed the WLGA report in November 2014 Pam Palmer took one of her habitual swipes at the local press for failing to report good news about the council. The proposals would need to be picked over "very, very carefully", she said, and she warned councillors that anyone considering being a member of the working group would have to work very hard and be available for its meetings.

The meeting ended and the council set about putting together the working group which would make recommendations on the WLGA's recommendations to make Carmarthenshire "the most open and transparent council in Wales" (Kevin Madge again).

This being Carmarthenshire, the council has never announced who the members of the working group are, and its meetings are held in private. It does not publish minutes. There's transparency in action.

The first meeting was held on 9 December. Its members are:

Kevin Madge (Lab)
Terry Davies (Lab)
Derek Cundy (Lab)
Pam Palmer (Ind)
Mair Stephens (Ind)
Hugh Richards (Ind)
Emlyn Dole (Plaid)
Hazel Evans (Plaid)
Tyssul Evans (Plaid)
David Jenkins (Plaid)

Everyone turned up for the first meeting except for Hugh Richards who clearly had not been listening when his party boss, Pam Palmer, delivered her lecture about hard work. Voters of Felinfoel, take note.

In almost any other supposedly democratic institution, committees of this kind would be made up of opposition and backbench members only, but this group includes three members of the ruling Executive Board, and they were joined by five officers headed by Mark James himself and Linda Legal, that dispenser of legal advice described by Sir David Lewis as "cavalier at best and incompetent at worst" (the advice, that is).

Dim the lights, (no cameras) and...inaction!

Cneifiwr has obtained a copy of the minutes of this meeting, and they make for depressing reading.

Mark James and Linda Rees Jones appear to have done most of the talking in the first part of the session. They reminded everybody that the full council had tasked the group with coming up with an action plan.

"No action needed" record the minutes, presumably because the chief executive said something along the lines of "and here's one I produced earlier".

The 39 recommendations were then broken down into matters which cannot be discussed by the working group because they are the prerogative of the Executive Board or concern outside agencies, such as the Local Service Board.

A further chunk of recommendations were then batted off for consideration by the council's laughably named Democratic Services Committee.

One key area of the WLGA's report concerned the way the council engages with the public.  The minutes state that this will be decided by the Executive Board but that members of the group will be provided with a copy of a scrutiny committee report by e-mail. No further action required.

On the subject of cultural change, the document says that members of the Executive Board and the working group will be invited to give their views to officers. Backbench councillors, members of the public, the watchdogs and figures such as Sir David Lewis will not be consulted.

And we can all imagine what sort of views will be expressed by luminaries such as Meryl Gravell, Pam Palmer and Jim Jones.

The WLGA recommended that the council should publish information about the shadowy body known as the Business Management Group on its website. This unofficial body is made up of a handful of senior councillors who make key decisions on a range of matters including changes to the constitution. The minutes state merely that the group will continue in its current form. Not much transparency there, then.

And so the document chunters on.

Abolishing the undemocratic and draconian restrictions on motions to full council? These were introduced in 2011, but rather than revert to the old rules, someone (Linda Legal?) will undertake a tour of other Welsh councils to find out what they do.

The same for Questions on Notice (i.e. giving backbench councillors the right to ask questions).

They could of course have read the WLGA report which gives some pretty good indicators of what other councils do, or someone could have picked up the phone to the WLGA which knows all about this sort of thing. Instead months will be spent gathering and analysing how Torfaen, Monmouthshire, Swansea and all the rest deal with this new-fangled democracy thing.

Mrs Rees Jones will also be spending a lot of time reinventing the wheel in looking at the possibility of publishing a register of councillors' interests online. Many other councils have been doing this for a long time, but Carmarthenshire needs to consider the issue from scratch.

The group will also, at some future date, get round to thinking about allowing members of the public to film council meetings. Don't expect Pam Palmer to be in any rush to sign up to that one.

Questions, questions

The existing constitution gives members of the public the right to ask questions, but nobody ever does and the rules are a minefield. You may not, for example, ask a question which is, in the chief executive's view, substantially the same as any question which has been put at a meeting of the council in the last six months. It is not clear whether this includes scrutiny and other committee meetings, but most meetings are not filmed and the minutes rarely record questions. So only the chief executive "knows" if a similar question has been asked, and he can reject questions on that basis.

He can also reject questions if he considers them to be frivolous or likely to reveal exempt information (remember that council plans for public toilets were top secret and exempt from publication).

The working group's response to public questions is not, as you might think, to encourage them and make it easier for the public to ask them, but to tighten up the existing rules.

Council meetings are all held at times when most of us are at work, but you may submit a question without going along. If your question clears all the hurdles and is not rejected by Mr James, it may be read out at the discretion of the Chair.

To stop the non-existent flood of public questions by absentee questioners trying to earn a living, Linda Legal has been tasked with changing the rules so that questioners must in future be present in person if they want to ask a question.

Any members of the public who have watched Kevin Madge in action in a council meeting will probably not unreasonably conclude that their time and money would be more profitably spent on buying a lottery ticket.

And that is as far as they got in their deliberations on how to usher in a new democratic dawn of transparency and accountability in Carmarthenshire.

Friday 30 January 2015

On to a loser

Car parking charges are for many of us the most unpopular regular encounter we have with our councils. There's the frustration of having to have all that change to hand, trying to remember the full registration number of our vehicles, queueing up in the pouring rain while someone in front feeds the machine with 5p pieces, finding that the ticket machine is out of order and the feeling of being ripped off because the machines do not give change.

Not to mention the spiralling cost of parking, as councils seek to raise more revenue to cover their declining budgets.

All the evidence is that car parking charges are damaging to town centres. Why spend 70p or more on a parking ticket if you want to buy a loaf of bread and a newspaper when you can park for nothing at an out-of-town supermarket.

Despite saying that they are keen to ensure the vitality of our town centres, councils continue to ramp up car parking charges and drive trade away from them. As a regressive tax, the charges also hit those on low incomes hardest.

In Carmarthenshire the latest turn of the screw is the introduction of parking charges beyond 6pm and charging for parking on Sundays. Kevin Madge has also introduced charges for blue badge holders despite promising in Labour's manifesto in 2012 that he would do no such thing.

Perhaps Kevin Madge and Colin Evans don't go out after 6pm or on Sundays because if they did they would know that even the larger towns in the county are very quiet most evenings and on Sundays. The smaller towns are dead, but they have stilled ploughed ahead with the new charges.

To make the new parking regulations work, they have to be policed. If drivers know that there is no chance of being fined, why buy a ticket?

The problem is that it is very expensive to police parking in council car parks, especially those out in the sticks.

Figures recently released by Ceredigion County Council show that it took in £306,000 from parking fines in 2013/14, but the cost of what the Cambrian News calls "providing a service" (i.e. handing out parking tickets and collecting fines) left the council with a surplus of just £11,000.

Last Sunday afternoon there were just two cars parked in the main Mart car park in Newcastle Emlyn, and one of those was not displaying a ticket.

To stamp out this lawlessness, the council would have to spend a great deal more on sending out an enforcement officer on a Sunday on the off-chance that one or two drivers had neglected to buy a ticket than it would ever get back in fines.

But as we know, the council is never wrong, and Kevin Madge is sticking to his guns and doing what his officers have told him to do.

Thursday 29 January 2015

Meryl Watch

It has been some time since this blog reported on Carmarthenshire County Council's ongoing attempts to offload Parc Howard in Llanelli, but it seems that new moves are afoot with the favoured partner this time being another of those shell companies Meryl Gravell is so fond of.

Mrs Chippings was spotted enjoying high tea with various planning officers and other invited guests at a Llanelli hotel a couple of weeks ago, busily discussing visionary schemes for the future of the old mansion and its surrounding parkland over the scones and Darjeeling.

Cneifiwr understands that among the potential new investors are some familiar old faces with interests in and around Meryl's favourite racecourse at Ffos Las including Pembrey Airport, which until recently advertised itself as "one of the few Airports in the United Kingdom that has 5000 acres of adjoining land available for joint venture with very little planning and environmental constraints", and medallion man Robbie Savage whose exciting plans for a hotel at Ffos Las have got no further than some old orgasmic press releases.

Meanwhile, Meryl has more exciting news for all of you in Tre'r Sosban.

"Council Chief Meryl Gravell shares thoughts on £1m Opportunity Street scheme in Llanelli" screams a headline in the online version of the Llanelli Star, complete with a picture of the Great Leader which must have been taken about 10 years ago.

Has there been a coup in County Hall with Meryl returned to her rightful place at the helm? Has Kev been placed under house arrest in Garnant?

Well, neither of these things, although the Labour Party in Llanelli must be gnashing its dentures and wondering why Kev has once again allowed the old monster to give the impression that she is running the show (come to think of it, she probably is) and play the role of Lady Bountiful.

Opportunity Street is a scheme to allow the county council buy up empty retail premises in the town centre, refurbish them as "commercial premises" and convert any upper floors into flats.

A related article reminds us that Llanelli was rated the second worst town in the UK for retail vitality last year, and that one in five shops is empty.

Needless to say, Meryl thinks this is "really exciting", and she cannot imagine that anyone in their right minds would criticise it.

The problem is that there is just £1 million in the kitty, with half the money coming from the Welsh Government and the rest from the council, and as one business owner pointed out, £1 million will hardly make a dent. The cost of purchasing and refurbishing properties could mean that the scheme would struggle to complete two projects.

Given the scale of the problem and the amount of empty retail and office space in the town, you also have to wonder who will want to take on the refurbished "commercial premises".

The council nevertheless remains confident that the investment will pay off.

Wednesday 28 January 2015

The cost of Bryn

If you have not read it, take a look at what Jacob Williams has to say about the bills racked up by Pembrokeshire County Council in defending and then getting rid of its former chief executive.

Jacob rightly points out the parallels with Carmarthenshire, and there are many, although we have as yet had nothing like the same degree of visibility of the sums spent on our own chief executive's legal ventures.

More on this to follow in due course.

Local Government Reorganisation - some crystal ball gazing

"Well, Mr James, I see a shortish, grey-haired man in glasses looking very stern and threatening. But, wait! He is bearing gold. Lots of gold."

Unfortunately Mystic Meg's apparatus went on the blink at this point, but the short, not very handsome stranger probably looked something like this:

It is not often that events in Cardiff Bay move with bewildering speed, but they did yesterday. First, Leighton Andrews, Labour's Minister for Public Services, dropped a big hint that the Williams Commission's recommendations for the reorganisation of Welsh local government might not be the only way of redrawing the map, before announcing a little later that he was rejecting the proposed voluntary merger of six councils, thereby effectively consigning Williams to the litter bin of history.

Although Carwyn Jones had previously welcomed Williams' proposals, Leighton Andrews yesterday rejected a proposed voluntary merger of Conwy with Denbighshire which was one of the recommendations set out in the Williams report.

Leighton Andrews has said that he hopes to find consensus among the parties, but the Welsh Government will publish its own map in the summer if no agreement is reached.

So it's back to the drawing board, and whereas it had looked as though Carmarthenshire would be one of the few councils to continue in its existing form, all bets are now off.

Swansea's Labour council has made no secret of its ambitions to create a much larger authority based loosely on the Swansea Bay City Region concept taking in Llanelli and the surrounding area, and it has sent several raiding parties over the border already, including objecting to plans for some new fast food outlets in the Trostre shopping centre and an intervention in Carmarthenshire's long-winded Local Development Plan process, with Swansea pushing for a huge new housing development in Llangennech.

There is support in Llanelli for becoming part of a greater Swansea, including from Keith Davies AM, and Carmarthenshire shorn of Llanelli and Cwm Gwendraeth would hardly be a viable unitary authority.

It is quite a possibility that Dyfed may yet rise out of the ashes, albeit without Llanelli, although not necessarily sub-divided into its old constituent parts of Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion.

One conceivable solution which might find broad backing is a new Dyfed divided north/south, something which has a lot to recommend it, although the Amman Valley and Llanelli factions of the Labour Party might find themselves in opposing trenches.

But back to Leighton Andrews briefly.

The other week Leighton was banging his shoe on the table about the scandal of fat cat council chief executives. Bryn may have gone, but Mark James is still with us, and with Labour having come round to Plaid's way of thinking that he should not be given a whopping pay-off, Carmarthenshire's answer to Vladimir Putin is set to stay with us for the foreseeable future, and there is not much Leighton Andrews can do about it.

However, if a re-jig of local government in the south-west resulted in the disappearance of Carmarthenshire, Mark James could finally see his wish come true in the form of a redundancy notice with a very large fat cheque attached.

Tuesday 27 January 2015


Here for your entertainment is a selection of anecdotes about the leadership style of Bryn Parry-Jones, the former chief executive of Pembrokeshire County Council.

According to a source who was there, a select group was invited over to the Parry-Jones's before Christmas for drinks and nibbles. The party spent the entire time in the kitchen. When Bryn was asked if they would be staying in the kitchen, he replied that he could not afford to heat the rest of the house.

Staff at County Hall in Haverfordwest were given a written instruction that if they saw the great man walking through the offices they were not to engage him in conversation because "he is a very busy man".

In his capacity as returning officer Bryn last year delivered a seminar for staff involved in running elections. He delivered his lengthy piece facing the audience with his eyes closed the entire time.

Hengoed by-election - the runners and riders and a tasteful exchange

Six candidates are contesting the election for the County Council to be held on 19 February. They are (in alphabetical order):

Martin Davies (Plaid Cymru)

Stephen Davies (Conservative)

Penny Edwards (Labour)

Bramwell Richards (Ukip)

Wynford Samuel (People First)

Edward Skinner (Independent)

Six candidates are also contesting the election for a vacant seat on Llanelli Rural Council. They are:

Tonia Antoniazzi (Labour)

Stephen Davies (Conservative)

Heidi Elizabeth Jenkins (Independent)

Susan Philips (Plaid Cymru)

Bramwell Richards (Ukip)

Wynford Samuel (People First)

Bramwell Richards is chairman of the Llanelli Branch of Ukip. A taste of the kind of debate we can expect can be found in a brief exchange on Facebook where a voter asked what Mr Richards' views on abortion are.

He received a reply from "Ukip South Wales" saying "Let's abort the EU first!"

Saturday 24 January 2015

Hengoed by-election

Nominations for the by-election in Hengoed near Llanelli closed yesterday, with polling day set for 19 February.

The Plaid candidate for the County Council seat is Martin Davies, while Susan Phillips is standing for Llanelli Rural Council.

Carmarthenshire County Council has not yet announced the list of all those contesting the two seats, but it is understood that Labour is fielding Penny Edwards for the County Council and Tonia Antoniazzi for Llanelli Rural. Representing People First (Siân Caiach's group) is Wynford Samuel, nephew of George Edwards who narrowly took the seat for Labour in 2012.

It is not yet known whether Ukip, the Tories or the LibDems will be fielding candidates.

Martin Davies

Martin has lived in Sandy for over 20 years and has represented Hengoed ward on Llanelli Rural Council since 2008. Martin represents the Rural Council on various outside bodies and is currently the Vice-Chairman of the Rural Council and will be invested as its Chairman in May 2015.

Martin is also a lecturer in Welsh at Trinity University and governor at Strade and Furnace Primary schools. Martin has also been a member of the successful Colliers quiz team for many years.

Susan Phillips

Born and bred in the ward, Susan was Post Mistress at Pwll Post Office for 15 years. Susan is also a voluntary music assistant at Pwll Primary School, organist at Bethlehem Baptist Chapel and a member of the Tŷ Bryngwyn Hospice Committee.

Friday 23 January 2015

A narrow escape - yet another public interest report

The dust had barely settled after this month's meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council when a formal notice appeared on the council's website announcing that a public interest report from the Public Services Ombudsman would appear in due course.

Public interest reports are rare and all the more serious for that. Most concern failings by local health boards, with the most recent public interest report on a council being published in February 2012. That was about Cardiff City Council. Carmarthenshire was the subject of another report just before that in January 2012, giving our county council the distinction of being the only Welsh council to have been the subject of two public interest reports by the Ombudsman in the last three years.

Not to mention the council's unique distinction of being the subject of not one but two public interest reports by the Wales Audit Office last year.

The substance of this latest case is the way the council responded to concerns raised about the welfare of a four year old child who had moved to Carmarthenshire from England with her mother and her mother's new partner. The two adults were known to be drug addicts, and both apparently suffered from mental health problems, with suggestions of domestic violence.

The council's inadequate response echoes catastrophic failings by other local authorities which led to the death of Baby P and a string of other horrific cases. The best that can be said is that Carmarthenshire was lucky this time that the child was eventually returned to her father, and the mother and her partner moved on.

The first concerns were raised by the child's father, the social services department of Warwickshire and, eventually, Dyfed Powys Police following a drugs raid. Here is what the Ombudsman found:

The Ombudsman found that the Council failed to carry out a home visit and missed a number of opportunities to investigate Mr Y’s concerns about the family’s circumstances, which included a number of risk factors. Instead it relied on information from the school, where his daughter was a new pupil. It also failed to investigate properly a referral made from an English County Council’s Children’s Social Services Team where the concerns were similar to those raised by Mr Y and where an “urgent welfare check” was requested. It was several months before the home was visited and this was only after a referral from the police following a drugs raid. An assessment of the child’s needs was not carried out before the child left the Council’s area to return to Mr Y’s care.

The report says that the council has accepted the Ombudsman's findings, is reviewing its procedures and providing appropriate staff training. However, the document suggests that the extent to which the council has taken this criticism on board is open to question.

Here is the substance of the council's response:

In its response to me the Council said that appropriate enquiries were made in reply to Mr Y’s concerns about his daughter’s living arrangements and welfare. It said that attempts were made to obtain the completed IA from Warwickshire and the mother and school had been contacted, when no child protection concerns were identified. When responding to Mr Y the Council said that in the circumstances a home visit was not considered justified.

So while the council is not contesting the report, it does not appear to accept that there was anything wrong with its response.

The events covered by the report took place in 2012, and the Ombudsman's report was published on 8 January. This was just a fraction too late to make it on to the agenda of the council's monthly meeting which took place on 14 January.

For reasons which are not clear, the council waited until 16 January to publish a notice advising all and sundry that it was going to have to publish the Ombudsman's report. Why there was a delay in publishing the report is not known. Also unclear is why the council did not flag the fact that it had received the report until after the meeting of the full council.

This timing is particularly questionable because the meeting of the full council on 14 January considered the annual report of the Care and Social Services Inspectorate Wales (CSSIW) on Carmarthenshire's care and social services for vulnerable adults, the elderly and children.

The CSSIW report was very upbeat and positive. In fact, if you read its conclusions, it is hard to imagine what more could have been said in praise of the council's services (words highlighted by editor):

The council continues to benefit from strong leadership across both children and adult services, senior officers have a clear vision and are implementing plans effectively to ensure people living in Carmarthenshire who require social care services have a better quality of life. The evidence available confirms that the council continues to prioritise the provision of social care services and that its plans remain ambitious despite the financial constraints that it faces. Its budgets are well managed. 

The council has implemented a number of innovative projects and has provided evidence of a range of positive outcomes which have been delivered through its strategic transformation of services. It has signalled its intention to put people in control of the services they receive and to support more people to live independent lives. It is seeking to reduce dependency on its services by strengthening support in communities. 

The council’s annual performance report has been structured to reflect the key components of the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act. It is clear that it will be in a strong position to deliver services within the new legislative framework. The council has set out how it will deliver services that demonstrate improved commissioning and integration of services, where the well being and the voice of citizens will be at the centre of service delivery

And there is much more in the same vein, and no mention of any investigations or reports or even an oblique reference to the need for the council to improve its response when child protection issues are raised, even though the council and the Ombudsman had been in discussion for months prior to publication. An interesting question is what, if anything, the CSSIW knew about all of this and why it failed to say anything. 

In other words, the council went ahead with a review of the very positive CSSIW report even though it was sitting on a damning report from the Public Services Ombudsman which sheds a very different light on aspects of the council's services.

If the CSSIW did not know about the case, why didn't it? If it did know about the case, why did it go on to write a report praising the council? What exactly is the CSSIW for?

For all who have been following events in Carmarthenshire in recent years, the latest case has all of the familiar ingredients: refusal to accept criticism ("we responded appropriately") and what looks very much like careful manipulation of the timing of news releases.

Wednesday 21 January 2015

Comfort packs, privacy glass and convertibles - Top Drawer Top Gear in Carmarthenshire

Back in the news is the disclosure that the former chief executive of Pembrokeshire County Council, Bryn Parry-Jones, enjoyed the use of a hybrid Porsche Panamera (retail price around £90,000) as part of the perks of running the local authority. The luxury sports car was officially designated as a family car, with the hefty insurance bill apparently also paid by the council.

The Information Commissioner has ruled that Pembrokeshire County Council must disclose the cost of the Porsche after it refused a freedom of information request from the BBC. Let's hope that the council does not follow the lead taken by Carmarthenshire County Council which refused to disclose correspondence with Towy Community Church. When the council was over-ruled it changed tack and branded Jacqui Thompson's request as "vexatious".

Meanwhile Leighton Andrews, Labour's Public Services Minister, has gone on the war path with a warning that he would like to bring the days of over-inflated salaries and luxury perks for council bigwigs to an end. This puts the spotlight once again on Carmarthenshire which now has the highest paid Welsh council chief executive, although Leighton might want to ask Kevin Madge and other members of the local party why they have for years supported Meryl Gravell in her policy of peanuts and monkeys, and voted to approve more perks, pay rises and tax dodges for Mark James than you can shake a stick at.

So while a lot of attention has rightly been paid to Parry-Jones's Porsche, an interesting question is what perks are enjoyed by his former neighbour and other top council officers in Carmarthenshire.

Employee car leasing schemes used to be very popular until the taxman spoiled things, but accountants are nothing if not inventive when it comes to new ways of beating the system, and as we saw with the controversial pension scheme opt-outs enjoyed by Parry-Jones and James, councils - a branch of government when all is said and done - are up there with the best when it comes to finding ways of helping their top brass to pay less in tax.

One way of doing this is what is known as the "Salary Sacrifice Car Scheme". Here is a prominent car leasing company explaining how it works:

Salary sacrifice works by allowing employees to give up part of their salary under their terms of employment, in return for their employer providing the employee with a non cash benefit such as a car. Gross salary and cash allowances are usually subject to both Income Tax and National Insurance Contributions (NIC). By 'sacrificing' part of this gross salary for a new car, this part will not be subject to Income tax or National Insurance, resulting in lower tax and National Insurance being paid overall by the employee (and lower NICs paid by the employer) each month. In addition the employee takes advantage of any car manufacturer discounts offered to provide further savings. This means significant savings to employees can be made under salary sacrifice.

Champagne all round for everyone except the ordinary taxpayer.

Thanks to a Freedom of Information request (here) made earlier this year, we can get a pretty good idea of what Carmarthenshire County Council considers to be acceptable perks for its top brass.

Two lists were provided in response - one marked "Leased Vehicles Personal Contract Lease", and the second detailing vehicles leased by the council for work use, "Contract Leased Vehicles Corporate".

The corporate list comprises 91 vehicles, including two Mercedes limousines. One of those was ordered by Kevin Madge (Lab) when he became council leader so that he did not have to share with the Council Chair. It is now being proposed to axe one of these as part of cost cutting measures although Kevin Madge is understood to be very reluctant to let go of the keys

Other than the Mercs, one of the most popular vehicles on the corporate list is the VW Tiguan, a 4x4 which retails for around £20,000. There were around 20 of those.

The personal list is even more interesting, and comprised 87 vehicles back in April 2014. It seems that the council's car lease scheme operates for the benefit of roughly 1% of the workforce.

There were 4 BMWs, including a natty "3 Series Diesel Convertible 320d 2 door with extras". Not very practical in Carmarthenshire, you might think, but somebody obviously thinks that a flash convertible (retail price around £40,000) is essential.

Also on the list were two Mercedes A Class diesel A180 5 door efficiency "sport" runabouts.

Rather more popular were Audis. There were 7 on the list, including several A3 Sportbacks. One came with privacy glass and comfort pack (whatever that is), while another was a "special edition". One of those will set you back around £30,000.

Thanks to massive cuts in the road maintenance budget, expect to see a shift to more robust 4x4s over the next couple of years.

Monday 19 January 2015

An elephant in the room and other matters - this month's council meeting

As meetings of Carmarthenshire County Council go, the January meeting of the full council was a dull affair with a very thin agenda. Rather than give an account of the meeting, let's examine some of the subjects which came up and a couple which did not.

The Chief Executive, Mark James, seemed to be in a fairly subdued mood and did not intervene as much as he usually does.

The remarkable thing is that we now have the highest paid council chief executive in Wales who would rather not be in the job, and if Labour's recent statements are anything to go by, a large majority of councillors who would be happy to see the back of him.

Not so much a local authority, more a hostage situation.

None of this was on the agenda, of course, and it probably never will be.  As we now know, the council's HR managers drew up a list of ten options for councillors to consider, and the key question was whether there is a business case to support a payout which could cost the council nearly half a million pounds. It is understood that Mr James let it be known through the HR department that he would like the dosh to be paid after the start of the new tax year, even though the severance scheme comes to an end before then.

A large chunk of the cost of saying goodbye to Mr James is related to his pension, and this blog has it from a reliable source that there is an added complication because he has not rejoined the Dyfed Pension Fund since the WAO report found his original opt-out arrangements to be unlawful.

Plaid's position on Mr James is that he should not be paid a penny to go, and what with this being an election year, Labour has also undergone a very late conversion. Unknown is what Meryl Gravell's Independents think about all this, although as the chief executive's political representatives on earth, we can probably guess.

Unless Mr James has an extremely lucrative new job lined up, it seems likely that he will be with us for some time to come.


The saddest moment of the meeting came with a decision to close Llanfynydd School. The local councillor, Mansel Charles (Plaid), spoke movingly of the school's history and the part it has played in the lives of so many people for 285 years.

As so often, Cllr Charles noted, the end became inevitable when it was put about by the press (briefed by County Hall of course) that the school may not have a long-term future. This scares parents into moving their children to other schools, and so we have a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A huge swathe of north Carmarthenshire has now been left without a single primary school, with long bus and car journeys for very young children.

All of this has been done to save money, although how much ploughing millions into new schools and busing children around the countryside really saves is a question worth asking.

Just up the road from Cneifiwr is the village of Capel Iwan, set in beautiful countryside and with some very nice houses. It has no pub, no shop, no post office and now no school. The village is of a decent size, and with the surrounding farms and hamlets should be able to support a school, but all it has left is a village hall tucked away behind the slowly decaying village school. The site occupied by the former school and hall is large, but unless anyone wants to buy a fairly small, semi-derelict school building which sits on an otherwise empty plot a few feet from a village hall with shared access, it is unlikely that anything other than demolition awaits Ysgol Capel Iwan.

Capel Iwan is now not much more than a collection of houses; as a community it is dying. There are many good sized family homes, but prices have plummeted and few people with families would want to move somewhere with so little to offer.

Because the village has no facilities and is a long way from the shops and the doctors, there are quite a few elderly residents who would like to move as well, but find they are unable to sell.

The only way that schools in places like Capel Iwan and Llanfynydd can be saved is if parents make a stand, work together and keep their children in local schools, but an increasingly common sight in these parts is mothers with children commuting long distances to school and passing several small schools on their way.

Thematic reviews and strategic triangulation

The main event this month was the presentation of the annual report of the Care and Social Services Inspectorate Wales (CSSIW). As in previous years, it was a long and fairly monotonous delivery of jargon and buzz words, with a lengthy and unnecessary preamble explaining the role of the CSSIW.

What emerged was that the CSSIW thinks the council is doing a very good job. That social and children's services are good in parts is undoubtedly true, but the very positive picture painted was somewhat at odds with the experiences of some people at least.

Cllr Bill Thomas (Lab) raised the case of a young man with autism who desperately needed an advocate to help him navigate the complexities of dealing with officialdom. He had been trying to help this young man for years, without success.

Cllr Thomas was immediately slapped down by the chief executive who told him to raise the matter with the Director of Social Services (present, but silent on this matter). We can safely assume that Bill Thomas as a very experienced councillor had already tried that and failed, but he was not going to be allowed to say so.

Emlyn Dole, the Plaid group leader, wondered why the report gave a glowing account of services for looked after children but noted that many foster carers were not getting the annual review which they are supposed to get by law.

The lady from the CSSIW said that because it was a legal requirement, the Inspectorate had been obliged to raise the matter, but hinted that this was really just a box ticking thing. Nothing to worry about, then, but the inspectors had covered their backs in case anything went wrong.

Purely by coincidence, two days after the meeting, the council published a notice on its website advising readers that the Ombudsman for Public Services had found against the council following a complaint about "opportunities that were missed to follow up reports regarding the welfare of a child and to subsequently assess the child’s needs."

No mention of this in the CSSIW report which was more concerned with thematic reviews than real people, and we will have to wait a little longer to find out what the complaint was about because the council will be obliged to publish it.

This would appear to be the latest case of a public watchdog in Wales (see Old Grumpy for more) failing to pick up on what should be under its nose, but then if you examine the list of "visits and inspections undertaken during the year", you will find that most of these visits and inspections appear to have taken place in County Hall, including "engagement meetings with senior council officers".

Bearing in mind that there have been a number of very worrying cases of whistleblowing in the county's social services, it is surprising to say the least that no mention at all is made of this in the report.

Instead, the CSSIW learned in its engagement meetings that the council "benefits from strong leadership".

The subject of looked after children is one which is rarely debated openly, but it brings with it enormous social and financial costs. What seems to be clear is that Carmarthenshire and other authorities in this part of Wales are looking after large numbers of children who come from elsewhere. In one case almost half of the children in a primary school in a neighbouring county are in local authority care.

This is a something this blog would like to return to in due course. If any foster carers, social services professionals or others with knowledge of the system would like to get in touch, please do so through the e-mail address at the top of this blog. All contributions will be treated in confidence.

Sunday 18 January 2015

Jacqui Thompson

Friday was the deadline for fellow-blogger Jacqui Thompson to tell lawyers acting for Mark James, chief executive of Carmarthenshire County Council, how she intends to pay the £30,000 plus awarded to him in damages in the now notorious libel case. Plus, because the charge is subject to interest which is currently adding to the total at a rate of £166 per month.

The question posed by Mr James's lawyers is a rhetorical one because they know, as does Mr James, that Jacqui Thompson does not have £30,000+ stashed away in a savings account, and that is presumably why he instructed his lawyers to go to court to secure a charge on her home.

This latest milestone in the case was the subject of reports on BBC Wales and Newyddion 9 on S4C.

I was interviewed for the piece, but my pennyworth did not make the final cut. So here for the record is the gist of what I had hoped to say.

One of the first questions was what I thought the implications were for freedom of speech.

Although Mr James won the case and said afterwards that he thought he had established a principle which would be of benefit to other councils and public bodies, his victory turned into a nightmare for Carmarthenshire County Council which last year found itself the subject of a very public telling off by the Wales Audit Office. The Welsh Government also made its opposition to libel indemnities clear, although the council tried to spin even that.

Politically the case has been a disaster. The libel case and the pensions scandal together hang liking a rotting albatross around the neck of Labour leader Kevin Madge, and have done the Labour Party no good at all.

Ironically for Mr James who took the action to protect his reputation, his standing in the eyes of the public has never been lower. Ironic too that a council which spends so much on its PR operations should have gained such a bad name for itself.

There also remains the question of who is going to pick up the bill for the case, which runs to around £250,000 not including the £30,000+ in damages awarded to Mr James. Not to mention the money the council spent on defending its actions by hiring Tim Kerr QC.

So while the Council maintains that it was legally entitled to fund the case, the libel indemnity clause is now suspended, probably for good, and no Welsh public body in its right mind would be tempted to follow the trail blazed by Mark James.

Freedom of speech remains where it was before the case started.

This blog started in the aftermath of Jacqui Thompson's arrest for filming a couple of minutes of a public meeting of the council. There was nothing in the council's rule book to say that filming was banned.

At the time the arrest looked like a massive over-reaction, and it later emerged that Dyfed Powys Police was none too happy about being dragged into the mess.

Ironically the chain of events which ended with Jacqui Thompson being led from the council chamber in handcuffs was begun by a complaint from Cllr Pam Palmer. Ironically, because Mrs Palmer is very fond of lecturing the council about common sense, which she likes to say is a very rare commodity nowadays.

The problem right from the beginning was a lack of common sense on the part of the council which could and should have found ways of defusing the situation.

Common sense also suggests that the case should never have gone to court, and lawyers for the two sides apparently came to an agreement weeks before the trial began. It is understood that it was Mr James who insisted on having his day in court.

Common sense never got a look in.

The usual anonymous spokesperson for Mr James told the BBC last week that his lawyers were waiting to open a negotiation with Jacqui Thompson.

The only asset she has is her share in the family home, and she cannot afford legal representation. She probably rightly suspects that any negotiation would be a very one-sided affair.

And yet.... Mr James went on record before the case landed in court to say that he was not in it for the money.

The only hope for the Thompson family is that Mr James now shows that he is as good as his word. He won the court case, and from his point of view emerged from the saga vindicated, without a stain on his character.

It would do his reputation no harm at all if he now adhered to Churchill's maxim of "In defeat, defiance. In victory, magnanimity", invited Mrs Thompson to a meeting without a battery of lawyers and told her that he was drawing a line under the affair by dropping his claim.

This would also pave the way for the council to find a way out of its difficulties.

The council still has to decide what to do about trying to recover its legal costs. A solution which does not involve making the Thompsons homeless and having to rehouse them is surely something which could be found.

A messy compromise, but as the council has found with the Wales Audit Office, messy compromises are sometimes the best option.

Wednesday 14 January 2015

Is John Jenkins about to come out of the closet?

Fresh from the ever active Llanelli rumour mills come reports that John Jenkins, one-time Tory boy and now a colourful and controversial unaffiliated councillor for the town, is giving serious consideration to standing as Ukip's candidate in the general election.

It is fair to say that few if any of Carmarthenshire's County Councillors have a Wikipedia entry to themselves - not even Meryl Gravell does - leave alone a lengthy resume of their careers to date.

This could be a marriage made in heaven.

Monday 12 January 2015

A very rare beast

Llanelli may not be fortunate enough to have its own Ukip prospective parliamentary candidate, but Carmarthen East and Dinefwr next door does. Look, here she is:

Perhaps it was just very foggy when the picture was taken, or perhaps Norma was wearing a white burkha in a snowstorm, but you will struggle to recognise Ms Woodwood in the unlikely event that she comes knocking on your door during the election campaign.

Apart from the fact that she would like to be an MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, the Ukip Wales website has nothing else to say about Norma.

It turns out that Woodwood is a very unusual surname. There are plenty of Woodwards about, including several Norma Woodwards, and it seems to be a fairly popular name for women of a certain age living in the American Bible belt who like films with titles such as God is NOT dead and Heaven is for real.

There is a Norma Wood-Wood living in Waynesboro, Virginia, but she is hyphenated. And living in Waynesboro, and so probably not about to ask you to vote for her in Waungilwen.

According to Google, there is only one Norma Woodwood and one single reference to her on the internet. And that reference is to the Ukip Wales website and the prospective parliamentary candidate for Ukip in Carmarthen East and Dinefwr.

Let's assume that Norma is in her fifties. Somehow she has managed to live among us all this time without leaving any trace of her existence on the internet.

That means that she does not use social media, and probably does not have a telephone or appear on the electoral role. She is not a director of a company, is not a school governor or parish councillor. She has never written to a local newspaper or appeared in the press for any reason, good or bad.

Unless you are a Trappist monk who withdrew from the world several decades ago and have no living relatives or friends, the chances are that you will have left some sort of digital trace, even if you never use the internet.

And yet Norma has managed it. Strangely, for a recluse, she would now like to go into public life and take part in the rough and tumble of politics despite never having shown an interest in anything which might be picked up by Google.

Not even flower arranging or pornography.

Saturday 10 January 2015

Barmy Army News

Having half-baked policies or no policies at all is not necessarily an obstacle to getting yourself elected as we all know, but not having candidates or not telling anyone about them is an entirely new approach being pioneered by Ukip in Wales.

At its conference in the plush surroundings of The Orangery in Margam in December, Nigel Farage told the assembled retired military types, xenophobes, racists, homophobes, crooks and funny handshake merchants who make up much of the party's membership that Nathan Gill, the former care home gangmaster, had been appointed Ukip leader in Wales (no messing about with all that messy democratic nonsense of electing someone), and that this was a sign that the party was taking Wales and Welsh politics seriously.

No laughing at the back.

If Ukip is serious about Wales, you would have thought they would have candidates in place for the general election which is now just over 100 days away. So far it has 17 candidates out of 40 in place, including luminaries such as John Rees-Evans, Cardiff South and Penarth, who claimed that a gay donkey had tried to rape his horse.

Among the noteworthy seats where Ukip has no candidate is Llanelli, where a previous attempt to select someone was aborted thanks to infighting between party members. The Ukip Wales website was until recently saying that a candidate to fight the seat would be selected on 7 January, but that date has now been removed.

It is now understood that the party will have another go at finding someone on 28 January, with former LibDem councillor Ken Rees still hoping to find a new political home.