Sunday 8 January 2017

Undulating Axminster

In the smoke and mirrors world of spin and public relations management, the defective moral compasses used by some authorities can lead them into believing that anything goes when they set about the business of shoring up their reputations.

As this blog has pointed out ad nauseam, the joke on these public institutions, and Carmarthenshire County Council is by no means alone in this, is that while they move heaven and earth to protect what they fondly believe are unassailable reputations for excellence in every way, an increasingly cynical public has long since concluded, often unfairly, that the same institutions are rotten to the core.

Let's call it the public relations paradox.

Simpler souls might think that a wiser option and one which might help restore tarnished images would be to fess up, acknowledge that we all live in the real world where not everyone, not even public servants, is an angel, and root out the bad apples. But that is not how things work.

It is this paradox which explains why whistleblowers so often find themselves treated as the real villains. It helps explain why, for example, Cllr Jacob Williams in Pembrokeshire found himself caught up in a Kafka-esque procedure designed to silence and discredit him for daring to post a link to a Western Telegraph article about that council's ongoing grants scandal.

Neither the article nor the comments beneath it submitted by members of the public named the council officer at the centre of the row, but he nevertheless felt, or quite possibly was persuaded to feel, that his reputation had been besmirched and his human rights infringed. Why, one or two commentators had even called for the Fraud Squad to be sent in. What an outrageous suggestion to make.

The slight problem with using these comments as a stick with which to beat Cllr Williams was that after a great deal of prodding, the council itself called in the cops.

For much, much more (a long Sunday afternoon read, perhaps), turn to the councillor's blog and embark on Trumped Up Charges. Parts 1 and 2 out now, with a promise that Bryn Parry Jones will enter the scene in Part 3.

In the same vein, when Cllr Siân Caiach inadvertently discovered a few years back that her official e-mail account was being "monitored" by council officers, the chief executive claimed the complaint was an attack on the integrity of the hapless council employee tasked with accessing her e-mails.

Further afield, readers of the Christmas issue of Private Eye were treated to a brief report on the activities of Cleveland Police in the north of England. A whistleblower had tipped off a local newspaper that all was not well in the force, and that among other things an internal review had found evidence of widespread racism.

The force then invoked powers to tap the landlines, mobile phones and home phones of two journalists on a local paper in an attempt to discover the identity of the whistleblower, arguing before an Investigatory Powers Tribunal that the racism report was damaging the force's reputation, and was therefore "not in the public interest".

A verdict is due this month, but the judge, Mr Justice Edis, commented in the final hearing that, "Isn't it in the public interest that the police force should have a reputation it deserves, rather than an artificially good reputation that it gets from brushing things under the carpet?"

Luckily Mr Justice Edis is a judge and does not live in Carmarthenshire because his reference to uneven floor coverings may well have prompted the council chief executive, Mark James CBE, to make a complaint to the police of criminal harassment.

That is what happened last year to blogger Jacqui Thompson who used the phrase "lumpy carpets" in a piece about the ongoing Pembrey Country Park scandal.

One of the odder aspects of this complaint is that Jacqui Thompson was simply quoting an opinion piece by Cadno in the Carmarthenshire Herald, as the council's press office which monitors the press, blogs and social media for criticism of Jail Hill would have been well aware.

As far as we know, Cadno has not had his brush felt by Dyfed Powys Police for this defamatory reference to whoever was responsible for the carpets in County Hall, but the cases of Jacob Williams and Jacqui Thompson show that even quoting or linking to mildly critical comments on local newspapers articles can land you in serious trouble with your council in what some people still like to call "a free country".

As for snooping on whistleblowers, the press, councillors and bloggers, we can all sleep easily in the knowledge that responsibility for supervising the use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act lies in the capable hands of Cllr Pam Palmer who would no doubt firmly resist any attempts to put anyone under covert surveillance to protect the county council's immaculate reputation.


That was a long preamble to what will, for various reasons, have to be a fairly short update on the scandals emanating from Pembrey County Park, or as the council would prefer to have it, the progress it is making in tightening up various procedures.

Although there had been rumours and whispers that all was not well at Pembrey for some time, the first councillors got to hear about it officially was when a very brief report on Pembrey Country Park and the Millennium Coastal Park appeared on the agenda of a meeting of the Audit Committee on 22 March 2016.

The report said that a number of weaknesses had been identified after the robustness of various procedures had been tested. Various things needed to be tightened up to ensure that policies were correctly adhered to, and that the review had come about at the request of the new Director, Jake Morgan (who rejoined Carmarthenshire after a spell at the Kremlin on the Cleddau in Haverfordwest under Bryn Parry Jones). Any issues identified were "historical".

Several councillors smelled a rat. What they had been given was not a report detailing allegations or the results of any investigations into them, but a very bland summary saying that new measures needed to be put in place to account for revenue, assets and health and safety, etc.

The even blander minutes recorded:

 In terms of the review of the leisure facilities at Pembrey Country Park and the Millennium Coastal Park which had been undertaken at the request of the Director of Communities the Committee was assured by the Head of Leisure that the weaknesses identified were being addressed and officers would be working closely with the Audit Section. This included ensuring that Corporate Financial Procedure Rules were adhered to at all times and that health and safety issues were addressed. Members were advised that an Action Plan was being prepared in respect of the issues in question and it was suggested that this could be brought to the Committee at its next meeting.

Much as the senior officers may have worried about the health and safety of park users, it is fair to say that they were probably even more concerned about the risk to their own health and safety should anyone peek under those allegedly lumpy carpets.

Councillors were assured that there was no evidence of any fraud.

The following month, the full council met and a couple of councillors wondered whether findings from investigations into the "historical" issues should be handed for checking to the police, or even worse, the Wales Audit Office.

Certainly not, they were told, the clear implication being that this was all about procedural fine tuning with no hint of any criminality.

The Audit Committee next met on 16 May, but would have been disappointed if they were looking forward to the update promised back in March. Instead they appointed a successor to Sir David Lewis whose retirement at this tricky juncture must have lightened the mood on Jail Hill somewhat.

Roll forward to the next Audit Committee on 8 July 2016 where the minutes record in full technicolor magnolia that:

Reference was made to the serious failings which had come to light at Pembrey Country Park and an assurance was sought that lessons have been learned and taken on board.  The Head of Leisure pointed out that the rate of change in the service over the past 4/5 years had been substantial.  He added that the challenge was to deliver services whilst deriving income at the same time.  The lesson they had learned was the importance of having the correct structure in place.  He assured the Committee that processes and procedures are being put in place and progress was being made.

Lessons had been learned, progress was being made, and the challenge was really not about unfortunate "historical" issues but delivering services and improving income.

Nothing to worry about there then. 

The committee was back at work on 30 September where it considered another brief summary. There had been yet more progress and improvement, and "the Head of Leisure outlined the measures being taken to resolve the catering issues at the Park which included an extended café at the ski shop for an interim period whilst refurbishment work was being undertaken."

According to the minutes, "the Committee was reassured that appropriate measures and procedures were being put in place to address the increased cash flow at the park since the establishment of the caravan site".

Far from this being a scandal, it was actually all about maximising cash flow.

In view of what had been going on behind the scenes and was about to happen a few weeks later, members of the committee should have been left feeling rather less than reassured by what they heard

A big part of the "catering issues" involved allegations that the tender process for a contract to run the park cafe and kiosks had been rigged.

The local company which had run the catering facilities for a number of years was SFS Events, run by Ms Stephanie Thomas. SFS lost the contract to a Yorkshire-based company after what the Head of Leisure, Ian Jones, described as "a rigorous application process designed to get the best value and service for the County Council and users of Pembrey Country Park"

Unfortunately, this turned out to be a little wide of the mark. The outcome of the tender process was challenged, and the whole process was scrapped in July, with the council saying,"it is possible that a member of staff involved in the process may have had a personal interest which might be perceived to compromise the impartiality and independence of the process".

Note the equivocations with all of those 'possibles', 'mays' and 'perceiveds'. The tender process had been gravely compromised, and in most people's book, this bland statement would have been reworded to read "suspected corruption".

Having been reassured, members of the Audit Committee may have spluttered on their cornflakes when they opened the Llanelli Herald or the Llanelli Star in the last week of October to read that Rory Dickinson, the council's 'Countryside and Coast' manager, had pleaded guilty to assault against Mrs Stephanie Thomas of SFS Events.

Observant members of the committee will also have noted the date of the assault with some discomfort because it took place on 23 March 2016, the day after they had been presented with a report which spoke of progress in dealing with "historic" issues:

A former Carmarthenshire Council manager has been fined nearly £1,000 after he admitted assaulting a catering manager in a row over the tendering process at Pembrey Country Park.

While appearing at Llanelli Magistrates' Court this afternoon, Rory Dickinson pleaded guilty to assaulting Stephanie Jayne Thomas on March 23 earlier this year.

(Llanelli Star)

It is now clear that the vague issues referred to in the March 2016 report to the Audit Committee were anything but historic. Like proverbial mushrooms, members of the Audit Committee were being kept in the dark and fed horse poo.

In view of the seriousness of the allegations, councillors may also wonder why the council did not refer Mr Dickinson's activities to the police, and why he was allowed to resign from the council a week before the trial in October.

As a senior manager put it when confronted by a whistleblower recording their conversation, "FFS don't call the police!"
The Dickinson case is by no means the end of matters. Back in October, Ms Thomas told the Llanelli Herald that she was still involved in a legal dispute with the council, and a further court hearing in a different case also relating to Pembrey Country Park is scheduled for 6 February in Cardiff.

In the meantime, the Audit Committee plods on. The most recent meeting took place on 6 January, with members being told of yet more 'progress'.

Unfortunately, meetings of this key committee are not broadcast or filmed, and unless you go along in person, you will have to reply on press reports or those heavily disinfected minutes. What we do know is that Cllr Bill Thomas (Lab., Lliedi, deselected) took up the cudgels once more and questioned the council's Head of Leisure, Ian Jones, and that the questions focussed on the fate of machinery and other assets belonging to the park.

The minutes will not be available for another couple of weeks at least, but no doubt we will read once more that members were reassured to hear that there was no evidence of any theft or fraud, which is what they were told.

The catering contract, the assault on Ms Thomas and the fate of those assets are just some of the ingredients  swirling around in this toxic soup. Others include claims that one employee was taking £10,000 a week out of the park; extortion; illegal, unlicensed commercial fishing; a sexual assault, blackmail and industrial scale cover-ups.

Of course, there is no hint of anything remotely worth telling the police about in any of those trivial allegations. References to lumpy carpets by a blogger, on the other hand, are a much more serious matter.

A key question is who knew what and when. Jake Morgan's March 2016 report was into "historical" issues which would have taken place during the tenure of his predecessor, Dave Gilbert OBE (now advising the Swansea Bay City Region). How much did Gilbert know about what was happening in his department? By the same token, was Cllr Meryl Gravell as former council leader and current portfolio holder ("we always defend our officers") in the loop?

And given the extraordinarily sensitive nature of what has happened, what part was played by the chief executive, and has there been a concerted cover-up and attempt to mislead councillors by some officers?

OBEs and CBEs all round!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A misfeasance in public office