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 The unlawful pension fund opt-out enjoyed by the chief executive was rescinded, but as Mark James subsequently told staff in the council's newsletter, this was only "for now".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.


Anonymous said...

I have just one question I should like to pose to Members of Carmarthenshire County Council - WHAT ON EARTH ARE YOU DOING?

How can they have allowed the very people whose blinkered, self-serving, devious and damaging actions have led to the damning criticism from their friends in the WLGA, to be put in charge of implementing change?

And oh how smug Mark James and his cronies must feel, when their strategy of bluster, delay, denial and bureaucratic bullsh*t has not only ensured that nothing of any consequence will change, but that they seem to have pulled the wool over Members' eyes, once again.

They may think that this has all been nicely finessed away, but I'm sure that the public won't think so. And they won't forget, either.

Anonymous said...

News of james impending departure should be promulgated across the internet.

£80k at Bath University is the latest rumour- people should be sending information on this guy to potential employers so they can see how toxic he is.

N-one their right mind would employ such a [literal] liability.

His reputation needs to precede him to ensure he is NEVER able to manipulate anything other than a tap.

Redhead said...

NO, say nothing! The sooner he goes the better, you want nothing holding him up! Buy him the rail ticket ( or perhaps book him the chauffeur driven