Saturday 11 March 2017

Lumpy Carpets - Part Two

In the previous post we left Caebrwyn preparing for her interview with the police to discuss Mr James's latest complaints of harassment. Meanwhile, Cllr Siân Caiach is sitting down to address a kitchen sink full of complaints of lèse-majesté against Carmarthenshire County Council's chief executive.

Among the complaints is her response to news on this blog that Private Eye had named Mr James "Shit of the Year" in its prestigious New Year honours list back in January when she wrote:

Some people, specifically civil servants, seem to get honours and awards for just doing their jobs, but this one is, in my opinion, richly deserved. 

More on this to follow as the facts emerge, but what is already becoming clear is the extent to which council staff are monitoring the press and internet for any criticism of Mr James. It's not just a few local newspapers and a couple of blogs which are being trawled, but a significant number of Facebook and Twitter accounts and other websites. In one case, County Hall even took direct action and asked a provider to remove content, presumably accompanied by warnings of dire legal consequences.

The obsession with protecting Mr James's reputation stands in stark contrast to the chaos and incompetence which reign in parts of the council, as we saw in the case of Mr Eirian Morris, who recently won his case for unfair dismissal.

The bill for defending this case will in all likelihood leave little change from £250,000. The tribunal hearing itself ran for a full week, with a battery of barristers and solicitors earning their keep. The council has been ordered to pick up the full cost, and it is likely that there will be significant additional amounts in compensation to Mr Morris.

The case was brought by Mr Morris's union, Unison, which said in a press release:

After the second five-figure payout to an employee for unlawful treatment in two years, Unison has condemned the council’s employment practices as woeful. The trade union lambasted executives for having spent public money on unwinnable cases and said it should instead concentrate on improving how it supports staff.


So what was all this about, and what does it tell us about the culture which has developed in County Hall?

Eirian Morris is a likable and intelligent man with a great deal of experience in the management of leisure facilities. He clocked up 34 years of unblemished service in local government, 27 of which were as an employee of Carmarthenshire County Council.

He is, in short, the sort of employee any organisation would be proud to have. With only a relatively short time left before he could look forward to putting his feet up on a reasonable pension, the easy option would have been to keep quiet about what he saw going on at Pembrey Country Park, but he chose instead to compile a dossier which he took to senior management, blowing the whistle on what he considered to be fraud, theft and corruption in the park.

As has happened with other whistleblowers in Carmarthenshire, Mr Morris paid a heavy price. He lost his job in what the tribunal decided was a completely unfair redundancy scheme, and faced retirement on a much reduced pension. In his own words, the council "put me through hell".

The verdict will go some way to compensating Mr Morris for what he has gone through, but he insists that he was never in it for the money.

Perhaps the legal department in County Hall is even more incompetent than Sir David Lewis thought when he described them as "cavalier at best, incompetent at worst", but it should have occurred to them at a very early stage that Mr Morris had a very strong case for unfair dismissal.

Instead, huge legal bills were racked up preparing the council's defence, and the penny only seems to have dropped days before the tribunal met. Mr Morris received his first offer to settle out of court with a compensation package a week before, and the council, seemingly desperate, upped its offer on the morning of the first day.

Mr Morris's counsel advised him to accept, but he said he was determined to fight on because he wanted to make a stand for all those who had suffered injustices at the hands of County Hall, but who lacked the means and the determination to see it through.

In the event, counsel for Mr Morris made mincemeat of the scheme concocted by the council's HR and legal specialists to get rid of him. Among other things, Mr Morris ended up as the sole individual in a "pool" of candidates for redundancy, and shortly after he was made redundant, the council advertised three posts for which Mr Morris would have been a qualified candidate.

Mr Morris was unfairly dismissed in the unanimous view of the panel.

The second part of the case revolved around whether not Mr Morris had been dismissed because of his whistleblowing.

Here the tribunal decided that Mr Morris had not, and under cross examination he was unable to substantiate some of the allegations he had made.

However, this part of the verdict should not be seen as a vindication of the council's stance, and serious questions remain about the way in which Mr Morris's allegations were handled.

He took his concerns to the then Director of Regeneration, Dave Gilbert, who was also deputy chief executive, and a senior HR manager in July 2014.

The allegations included claims that two individuals were engaged in criminal activity, including siphoning off monies from park takings by accepting cash payments for the use of some park facilities. Further, there were irregularities in the recruitment and appointment of staff with close personal relationships to one of the park managers.

The council invoked its whistleblowing procedure and appointed another council officer, Mr Noelwyn Daniel, as contact officer for Mr Morris.

The tribunal was less than impressed with Mr Daniel, who seemed to be very confused about the information he had received from Mr Morris. He had typed up notes for transmission to the council's internal audit office, he said, but could not explain what had happened to the handwritten notes he said he had received from Mr Morris. He was also shown at least one and probably several photographs to back up Mr Morris's allegations, but had failed to ask Mr Morris for copies.

The verdict notes laconically that the way Mr Daniel conducted his duties was "less than impressive".

Mr Daniel was recently appointed acting head of IT for the council, much to the surprise of many IT staff.

The allegations were investigated by an officer from internal audit, and what she found was a chaotic mess of inadequate procedures and poor documentation.

Unsurprisingly, she was not able to establish that significant amounts of money had been siphoned off, probably because questionable cash transactions do not usually leave a paper trail.

She also established that employment procedures had not been complied with (where was HR in all of this?), and Mr Morris's allegations eventually resulted in disciplinary proceedings against one manager.

It would seem reasonable to conclude that there was plenty of smoke, and one of the questions which needs to be asked is what steps could and should have been taken to find out if there was also a fire.

It has been reported elsewhere that a recording exists of a meeting in which a senior council officer when confronted with the allegations said words to the effect of "don't call the police", and it is hard to understand why the police were not brought in, even more so because of subsequent events at Pembrey, including an assault and a deeply flawed tender process for the catering facilities, something which is understood to be the subject of ongoing legal action.

If, as seems to have been the case, investigations were limited to an examination of paper trails, you don't need to be Sherlock Holmes to realise that the investigation was flawed from the outset.

One of the other issues which the tribunal looked at was proposals by the council to restructure its operations at Pembrey. That there had been discussion about changes for several years prior to Mr Morris's redundancy is beyond doubt, but whether by coincidence or not, proposals crystallised and led to Mr Morris's dismissal only after he had gone to see senior managers.

Not recorded in the verdict is a very public row which blew up in 2013 when Unison claimed the then Labour-led council was trying to privatise the park. The council reacted with a furious and extraordinary press release accusing the union of "cheap-shot lies".

According to various sources, there is a very interesting and rather murky bigger story behind all of that.

What does this episode tell us?

If you are Carmarthenshire County Council, there are no lessons to be learned from the Eirian Morris case.

In a characteristically sour piece of self-justification, Cllr Meryl Gravell (who is politically accountable for the entire period covered by this saga) put out the following statement to the Herald:

We are satisfied that the Tribunal did not support Mr Morris's claim that he was made redundant due to the protected disclosures (whistleblowing) he had made. We do however accept that there was a flaw in an element of the redundancy process that resulted in part of his claim being upheld. We will review these processes urgently whilst noting the finding of the tribunal that even if these errors had been corrected there was still only a 50% chance of Mr Morris's redundancy being avoided.

No apology for the ordeal he was put through; no acknowledgement that without Mr Morris's courage in coming forward the mess at Pembrey would have gone unnoticed; no thanks for all those years of loyal service.

Cllr Gravell's statement is about as grudging as you can get, and nothing in it suggests that the council will take a closer look at itself and the culture which it has developed.

The tribunal and the way the problems at Pembrey were reported to councillors suggest very strongly that the main concern of senior officers has, as so often in the past, been news management. Or to put it another way, there has been an only partially successful attempt to sweep things under the carpet.

As for the politics of the affair, there are already some Labour activists busily suggesting that Plaid bears responsibility, when in fact almost all of these events occurred on Labour's watch.

The message that voters want to hear from Plaid and Labour is not the usual Punch and Judy blame game, but a commitment to work together after the elections, not in coalition but constructively, to tackle the problems at source. Changing the culture of any organisation has to start at the very top.


Delyth Jenkins said...

Nothing has changed. I was let down by the Human Resources department of the Council because they failed to support me as a whistleblower. My trade union at the time asked for an urgent meeting with a HR officer to discuss the issues but I was denied this. A name that has cropped up recently is the same person that refused a meeting with me and my trade union. As seems to be the norm in these situations, he has since been promoted!

There is a lot of work for Carmarthenshire County Council to do to restore confidence. As I have said before, the only way to deal with this is to show zero tolerance and hold people to account. If this is not done then nothing will change. Why can't the Council deal with issues down the line and in a timely manner? Surely this would be the most sensible thing to do? Councillors should raise and challenge the treatment of whistleblowers in the chamber.

Anonymous said...

I agree Delyth.The problem is we think people are as honest and ethical as are we.In CCC there are no ethics or honesty so the fight is made much harder.Hope May will produce a change with new councillors who have the qualities needed to bring back democracy.

Matthew Paul said...

Fascinating. Did SOTY complain that Cllr Caiach failed to show him respect and consideration in her comment on the Private Eye award, or that by drawing attention to it she brought the Council into disrepute?

Anonymous said...

This council operates a war of attrition against everyone - no matter who they are. Zero fairness and accountability. They are a disgrace, but it comes from the top.

Cneifiwr said...

Matthew - we wait to find out. Your weekly column in the Herald remains a firm favourite.

Will you be standing for election in May?

Anonymous said...

Last April cllr Dole gave a highly patronizing response to cllr Ryan Thomas' Motion concerning the audit report about the events at Pembrey. He said that cllr Thomas' proposal to have the report forwarded to the police and the WAO was niave and councillors should trust the chief executive and head of legal to forward anything untoward to the relevant authorities.
The allegation of naivety seems to be misdirected.

Anonymous said...

There's no complaint system within the council that is transparent and honest. Complaints get buried. Then where do you go - the Ombudsman? If you are lucky it might be investigated - if you are even luckier he might uphold your complaint. It shouldn't be down to luck! You might try via your A.M.a Minister or two. No chance! You could even try the local police - really? They are another arm of the council. So what are your chances of ever having any valid justified complaint being investigated let alone a finding in your favour.
Let us hope then that Mark James's highly dubious complaints are treated in the same way, that he gets short shrift from both police and Ombudsman and that his allegations are buried along with the very many genuine complaints that deserved thorough transparent investigations.

Anonymous said...

Anon 9.32

One law for one and another for everyone else.

Jac o' the North, said...

I wouldn't bother with the Ombudsman because he's part of the problem, as Neil McEvoy AM recently found out in Cardiff with that insane prosecution for 'bullying'.

For whatever reason, the 'Welsh' Labour Government has no intention of moving against Mark James. The Ombudsman, Nick Bennett, is part of the bureaucratic furniture, having previously been top dog at Community Housing Cymru, the umbrella organisation for housing associations, currently being investigated by the Assembly's Public Accounts Committee.

Prior to that, Bennett was in business with Labour AM Alun Davies.

It just so happens that Neil McEvoy sits on the PAC and is asking some very awkward questions of how housing associations are funded and run, and of their links to the Labour Party, exhibited so clearly when Wales and West Housing - run by the wife of a Cardiff Labour councillor - was encouraged to take over Cantref of Castell Newydd Emlyn.

Of course there's no connection between Neil McEvoy being stitched up and him making big waves on other subjects.

It's wheels within wheels grinding away and drowning out all sounds of complaint.

Anonymous said...

Wales' structure is purposely designed to work for all those in authority. The proletariat stand no chance of having justice if they suffer in any form at the hands of those in positions of power. There are many examples of injustices blocked time and again by the Welsh Government. Ruling classes i.e. authorities versus working classes. This is Wales in 2017.

Unknown said...

Glad to see you are still following our brave bloggers Delyth. I feel both me and you, as whistleblowers were let down by our GMB union. Eirian was lucky to be supported by his union UNISON as whistleblowers are not a unions favourite employee. Conflicts of interests, untruths & coercion abound when it comes to investigating POVA, Whistleblowing, Complaints & the disciplining of whistleblowers. A whistleblower cannot expect any support from Mark James CEO who is a named person to be contacted if the whistleblower is not happy with how their concerns were handled. I tried and got no response from him. By his lack of action he fails service users and the public; of course he will never be held accountable for turning a blind eye to his officers misdeeds. In other words he is failing to put the public interest before the highly suspect methods used by the Carmarthenshire CC in protecting its own reputation. Linda Rees Jones, who now appears to be party to protecting reputation at all costs, early on in 2011 gave advice that our complaint against POVA's failure in handling our whistleblowing concerns be investigated. This advice was endorsed by another from LEGAL at the time. Officers involved in handling that Complaint and my subsequent Disciplinary & Hearing were in positions where they could be influenced by conflicts of interest. The decision not to continue with the Complaint was made by an officer who had been involved during the flawed investigations of our concerns and who was also in charge of the handling of Social Care whistleblowers. I did not know any of this until after my Appeal when I requested data under the Data Protection Act. Some of this information had been given to the investigating officer concerned in my disciplinary but was kept from me (totally against procedure) and not put into the Disciplinary Investigation File which should have contained all information whether it supported my being dismissed or not. My investigating officer, I found out, had suggested there appeared to be a need to look into how our whistleblower concerns had been handled but she received no response, that I have seen, in answer to that part of her email. As we saw, from what happened to Eirian, being manager or assistant manager doesn't protect you if you do the right thing. I'd like to think that my disciplinary investigator did not attend my Employment Tribunal as a witness for the CCC because she did not want to perjurer herself on the stand and not because she and the CCC would have had to answer some very awkward questions on the way my disciplinary was handled. Had I had proper legal support from my union and not had to be a litigant in person the outcome might have been different. Two of the other whistleblowers supported me as witnesses while the CCC had more than four times as many witnesses but not, of course, the disciplinary investigation officer just her supporting Human Resources adviser. That put pay to getting answers regarding much of the shenanigans that took place during my disciplinary investigation. Because I was so out of my depth the Judge could have asked for the investigating officer to be made available for questioning; maybe the CCC thought he might as she did attend Court the first three of the ET. Unions must start supporting whistleblowers properly.

Delyth Jenkins said...

I totally agree with you Jennifer. GMB let me down badly too but they should have supported us.
It wasn't a GMB trade union representative working for Carmarthenshire County Council I had but a GMB Officer working in the Swansea office, so she should have known better. It was extremely intimidating turning up for Council meetings, with two representing the Council and GMB should have been supporting me but she always sided with the Council. I have many instances where GMB failed to support me and in the end I dropped them when I resigned. I would never recommend them to anyone. Yet the Council were severely criticised within the Ombudsman's report and I was completely vindicated. Yet no one was held to account.

Their failure to properly investigate complaints is a deliberate attempt to cover up the truth. There were many failures by the Authority to follow procedures within my complaint, but even following severe criticism they still made no attempt to put things right and hold people to account. After reading what you have written they have also failed you too. How many others who we don't know about have they failed?
Someone needs to investigate all these cases again. This could be a commitment made by a genuine County Councillor in the next term of office.

Delyth Jenkins said...

Jennifer Brown 17.02

I agree with you Jennifer, I was also let down by GMB. They should have supported us.
I found the Council meetings very intimidating as there was always two Council staff, and as the
GMB official always seemed to side with the Council, it was regularly 3 against 1. This was not a GMB union representative working for the Council but a GMB Officer working In the Swansea office, so she should have known better. I would never recommend GMB to anyone after what I experienced.

There needs to be an investigation into the way Carmarthenshire County Council treats whistleblowers.
The official line is that they support whistleblowers, but in my experience they are hounded out of their jobs. The evidence in my complaint was apparent long before i eventually resigned and the Council knew I was saying the truth, but that didn't stop Managers treating me the way they did. Yet no one was held to account. From what I read about what you have suffered too Jennifer, things haven't changed at all.

Anonymous said...

It would be very interesting to know just how many complaints into the council by whistleblowers and complainants are found in favour of the aforementioned against those found in favour of the council. A thought.

Anonymous said...

Yes it would anon 14.08.

Very few in favour of the whistleblowers no doubt.