Wednesday 18 February 2015

Scrutiny Carmarthenshire Style


And lo and behold, councillors will be presented with the latest Ombudsman's report at next week's meeting, which just happens to be the budget special. Only a cynic would say that this unfortunate timing was engineered so as to ensure that the report is dispatched with minimum fuss and bother.


The Western Mail has picked up on a report produced by the Ombudsman for Public Services involving a very disturbing case in which a family in Carmarthenshire went through hell, and had their daughter taken away for six months while very protracted and flawed investigations took place into what turned out to be unfounded accusations of sexual abuse of a vulnerable adult.

The report can be found here (case number 201101540).

The case is highly complex, and the Western Mail provides a reasonable outline of the main course of events, although a key detail is what triggered the chain of events which led to the father's arrest and incalculable human misery.

The young woman at the centre of the case, identified as 'H' in the Ombudsman's report, is severely autistic and was receiving care from the council's social services department in the form of agency care workers who would take the young woman out on shopping trips, etc.

The parents would give the care workers pocket money with which to buy food and drink for their daughter, and it is understood that eventually questions were raised about what was happening to the money. The suggestion is that one of the carers felt that she was being accused of stealing or misappropriating the money, and whether by coincidence or not, then went to the council's social services department and made extremely serious allegations to the effect that 'H' was being sold into prostitution by her father.

Entirely reasonably, the council took immediate action, and 'H' was removed from her home. It is understood that the care workers arrived as usual and took the young woman out, but this time not to return, with the parents not suspecting that anything was about to happen.

'H', who is unable to speak, was kept in care for six months, and the Ombudsman upheld the parents' complaints in a number of key areas, including the use during the investigation of a discredited technique called Facilitated Communication and unnecessary and unreasonable delays in returning 'H' to the care of her parents, long after the police had concluded that the allegations were unfounded.

All of this took place in 2010 and 2011, and the investigations dragged on for long after that. It is understood that there is still an unresolved legal action brought against the council - a legal action which could and should have been resolved but which the council is contesting.

Dyfed Powys Police were also criticised by the Ombudsman, and by coincidence the force also found itself under fire today for its handling of child protection cases (see Western Mail report here).


This brief outline takes us to the present and Cllr Siân Caiach's attempts to get the report discussed by the council's Health and Social Care Scrutiny Committee.

Enter Mrs Linda Rees Jones, the council's Monitoring Officer and acting Head of Law and Administration, a figure who will be familiar to anyone who has followed the trials and tribulations of the council in the last few years.

Whether or not Mrs Rees Jones has been actively preventing discussion of the report is not clear, but she told the Western Mail that only the Ombudsman's public interest reports had to be submitted to full council.

So we have the bizarre spectacle of a scrutiny committee which, it seems, has been told it may not discuss a report on very serious failings by the council's social services department even though the report is freely available to anyone who wants to read it on the Ombudsman's website.

Mrs Rees Jones goes on to say that the issues raised by the report have been addressed, implying that there is no need therefore for councillors to poke their noses in, but anyone who has read the report will be left with a lot of unanswered questions including the use of agency staff, why the council unnecessarily and unreasonably prolonged investigations after the police had found that the allegations were unfounded and why it is still contesting the dispute.

So much for scrutiny.

A Track Record

The councillor with responsibility for Health and Social Care on the Executive Board is Jane Tremlett (Ind), but remarkably she appears to have had nothing to say, leaving the talking to her party boss, Pam Palmer, who told the Western Mail that the council was looking at ways of strengthening scrutiny arrangements as part of its efforts to increase transparency.

As readers will know, Cllr Palmer's track record does not exactly scream transparency.

Meanwhile councillors are waiting to be given an opportunity to discuss another report from the Public Services Ombudsman involving the council's failure to respond adequately to concerns about the welfare of a young child.

The report was published on 8 January, which was just too late for the monthly council meeting on 14 January.

For reasons which are unclear, it was not tabled for the February meeting, even though that meeting had a very thin agenda and was all over in two hours. Perhaps it is waiting to be slotted into a rather busier agenda when councillors are distracted.

Meanwhile, the council has gone on the offensive, with Executive Board member Keith Davies (Lab) telling the Carmarthen Journal that an apology has been made to the complainant and many of the Ombudsman's recommendations had been implemented.

However, anyone who has read that particular report will be left wondering to what extent the council really accepted the findings. In a section headed "The Council's Response", the Ombudsman recorded that the council was of the view that it had acted correctly throughout.

And perhaps it may never make it to full council, because although Mrs Rees Jones acknowledged that public interest reports have to be put before meetings of the full council, readers will recall the extraordinary way in which the Breckman case was handled.

That was a public interest report which hung around for months, with the council asking the then Ombudsman for an extension of the deadline while it decided what to do. All attempts by Cllr Cefin Campbell (Plaid), the local member, and others to be allowed to discuss the report were blocked, and a watered down version of the document was eventually presented to a closed session of the Planning Committee.

The history of that exercise in transparency can be found here.

Siân Caiach has asked Leighton Andrews to intervene, but as usual it seems that the Welsh Government will wring its hands on the sidelines and say that it is up to the council to sort itself out.


Anonymous said...

The provisions of s.21(8) and (9) of the Local Government Act 2000 are clear on this matter.

8)Executive arrangements by a local authority must include provision which enables— .

(a)any member of an overview and scrutiny committee of the authority to ensure that any matter which is relevant to the functions of the committee is included in the agenda for, and is discussed at, a meeting of the committee, and

(b)any member of a sub-committee of such a committee to ensure that any matter which is relevant to the functions of the sub-committee is included in the agenda for, and is discussed at, a meeting of the sub-committee.

(9)An overview and scrutiny committee of a local authority, or a sub-committee of such a committee, may not include any member of the authority’s executive.

So any member of the scrutiny committee can require any relevant matter to be scrutinised, and it would be unlawful for any officer or executive member to try to stop them

Anonymous said...

Were the carers investigated by the Council and the Police to establish whether the allegations made against the father were malicious?

Cneifiwr said...

Anon @18.47 - this aspect was not mentioned in the Ombudsman's report, which does not explain what triggered the accusations. I don't know the answer to your question.

Anonymous said...

Cneifiwr 19.06

This issue would not be within the remit of the Ombudsman to investigate, so I assume that this is the reason why he hasn't referred to this. This should have been investigated by the Council and the Police though.

Anonymous said...

I have just been reading Martin Shipton's article in the Western Mail about this complaint, and I note that the article states that
the Council's acting Head of Administration and Law said, "... this was a section 21 Ombudsman's report and not a section 16 public Interest report which requires full publication..."

In 2009 when the Public Services Ombudsman For Wales published a section 16 report which completely vindicated me but was extremely critical of Carmarthenshire County Council (report ref:- 200600720,) another section 16 report (ref no 200700758), which was even more damning than mine, was kept confidential. This goes against the requirement of the Public Services Ombudsman For Wales Act 2005, which states that Section 16 reports, which are in the public Interest, must be publicised by the Council and the Ombudsman on his website.

Delyth Jenkins

Anonymous said...


Oh yes, interestingly Linda Rees Jones confirms that a section 16 report "requires full publication". So what happens now?