Sunday 12 November 2017

Natural Injustice (updated)

Caebrwyn has written an excellent update and summary of the Breckman case (here) which has featured on this blog so many times in the past, and an article based on that blogpost appeared in this week's Carmarthenshire Herald.

The latest twist in this saga is that the chief executive has written to Mrs Breckman to inform her that he has instructed his officers, including the Monitoring Officer and Head of Legal, Mrs Linda Rees Jones, not to reply to her questions in future, and to warn her that, "I now place you on notice that continuation may well invite legal action".

The trigger for this warning was a request to Mrs Rees Jones asking her to perform her statutory duty and write a report on the case which, in the opinion of just about everyone who has any knowledge of it, contains abundant evidence of malpractice, negligence and misconduct in public office by a small number of senior council staff.

Here is the text of Mr James's letter in full:

Dear Mrs Breckman,

I shall not be responding to any further correspondence of this sort.

I shall also be instructing Ms Rees Jones and other officers not to respond to your false allegations and abuse.

You (sic) unpleasant and defamatory remarks about me and my staff have reached the point where I now place you on notice that continuation may well invite legal action.

Whilst I appreciate the difficult time you have had with your neighbour, your numerous complaints about the Council have been investigated and where the Ombudsman did uphold some of those complaints, we have complied with his requirements in that respect, which was some considerable time ago.

Yours sincerely
Mark James CBE

Rather than cover the same ground as Caebryn's article, let's take a look at one particularly shocking episode from last year when, after almost a year of requests and negotiation, Mr James finally granted an audience to Mrs Breckman.

The first thing to note is that Mr James has been very well acquainted with the case for most of its 15 year history; indeed there is abundant evidence to show that he has personally intervened on a number of occasions to try to silence Mrs Breckman and prevent scrutiny of the case by councillors.

These include placing Mrs Breckman on a blacklist of "persistent complainers" without her knowledge, a truly byzantine operation to prevent a highly critical ombudsman's report from reaching full council and an intervention to persuade the Petitions Committee of the National Assembly not to take up the case.

Much less clear is who was involved in collusion between elements within Dyfed Powys Police and senior council staff to intimidate and smear Mrs Breckman,

On the one hand we have Mrs Breckman, a slightly built woman now in her seventies, and on the other her troublesome neighbour who is a large and physically imposing man with a criminal record for violent assault, but on no fewer than five occasions it was Mrs Breckman rather than Mr Thomas who ended up being arrested and taken from her home in handcuffs when the police were called, only to be released without charge.

On another occasion when Mrs Breckman was involved in a road traffic accident and witnesses gave statements absolving her from responsibility, someone in Dyfed Powys Police had other ideas and decided to press charges for dangerous driving. The case was dropped after Mrs Breckman's solicitor reminded the police of the witness statements.

An officer who was asked to write a report on the case as part of a complaints procedure is said unaccountably to have radically altered a draft which confirmed Mrs Breckman's side of the story, to a version which cast doubt on her honesty by suggesting that she could have fabricated CCTV footage of an intruder looking very much like her neighbour prowling around her home in the middle of the night.

On another occasion two burly types appeared at Mrs Breckman's door offering to "do in" her neighbour for her. She politely declined their offer and was left wondering whether this was perhaps another attempt to compromise her.

The CCTV smear was then used by the council repeatedly to deter anyone in authority from asking questions about what on earth was going on in this otherwise quiet corner of Carmarthenshire.

When the previous Police and Crime Commissioner Christopher Salmon finally issued Mrs Breckman and her partner with a full apology for its handling of the case, including the CCTV claim, Mrs Breckman not unsurprisingly decided to take the matter up with Mr James.

Mrs Breckman's aim was to secure an apology from the council for its actions over so many years and to secure compensation for the stress and huge financial losses she and her partner had incurred.

For her part Mrs Breckman has always insisted that her quarrel is not with her neighbour, but with the council in particular for its negligence and perverse planning decisions, which have included allowing her neighbour to trash part of a Special Area of Conservation and SSSI with impunity.

At first, Mr James refused to entertain the idea of a meeting with Mrs Breckman. There was nothing to discuss, he declared.

Eventually, after some behind the scenes political intervention, he at last agreed to a meeting, although his busy timetable meant that it could not take place for many months, with further delays being caused by his cancellation of one appointment. When Mrs Breckman informed Mr James that she intended to bring along her then Assembly Member, Rhodri Glyn Thomas, Mr James exploded. The meeting was cancelled, and he announced that he was no longer prepared to see her.

As Mr James knew, Rhodri Glyn Thomas had been closely involved with the case for years and had also been threatened by Mrs Breckman's neighbour.

More behind the scenes shuttle diplomacy eventually persuaded Mr James to relent, and along went Mrs Breckman with her county councillor.

The meeting was very much one of two halves, with Mr James performing a one man double act. First up was "nasty" Mr James, staring coldly and asking hostile questions. Mrs Breckman stood her ground and laid out precisely her grounds for an apology and compensation.

For no apparent reason, half way through Mr James appeared to flick a virtual switch to turn on his "nice" side. He was sorry for what had happened; the council was unable to control her neighbour. He would now take charge of this personally, and all Mrs Breckman needed to do was to drop him a line outlining her case, and he would forward it to the council's insurers. Everything would be resolved "in weeks rather than months".

Cneifiwr spoke to Mrs Breckman shortly afterwards, and she was elated. The meeting has lifted a huge weight from her, and she sang Mr James's praises. Justice was at last going to be served.

Soon afterwards, she sent a letter outlining her case to Mr James, and it was indeed forwarded to the council's insurers. Rather unsettlingly in view of what she thought she had been promised, the insurers then entered into correspondence with Mrs Breckman. Time dragged on, and she was informed that the claims were now out of time. More correspondence followed until Mrs Breckman was informed by the insurance company that, at the council's instruction, the matter had now been handed to the council's solicitors who then wrote an extremely curt letter informing her that she had no claim and that any attempt by her to pursue the matter through the courts would result in their seeking to have her case struck out before it got anywhere near a courtroom.

The upshot was no apology and no compensation.

It is unlikely that Mr James will ever be asked to account for his actions. Did he "mis-speak" and give Mrs Breckman an expectation that he would ensure she received an apology and compensation without first having done his homework? Or was it a particularly cynical and cruel manoeuvre to get Mrs Breckman off his back while killing off attempts by councillors and political representatives to help her?

Having endured 15 years of torment and now facing the loss of her home, Mrs Breckman is determined not to let the matter rest. Mr James may yet have to resort to the lawyers to silence her.

Burns Case

Jacqui Thompson's blog has also drawn attention to another very long-running case of injustice which Mr James seems equally determined not to resolve. This time it concerns the Burns family whose daughter was taken away from them after false and malicious accusations of abuse were made by two care staff.

It will be remembered that despite a police recommendation that the Burns's daughter should be returned to her parents after they had concluded that there was no evidence of abuse, the council decided to prolong the agony.

After a very long battle, the council did eventually agree to pay a limited amount of compensation, but money was not what this was all about, and the family is still, seven years on, fighting to get the council and the police to conduct a statutory Safeguarding Investigation into their handling of the case.


For a much fuller account of the Burns' story, read this truly harrowing account by Siân Caiach, who was closely involved with the family.

Part One of the story can be found here, and part two here.


What these two cases tell us is not that Carmarthenshire County Council is uniquely bad. As with large organisations everywhere it can sometimes get things badly wrong, and the results can be catastrophic for ordinary people caught up in them.

A few years ago a panel of experts was brought in to carry out a review of governance of the council in the wake of the pensions and libel indemnity scandals. That particular exercise had almost no lasting effect, but at the time the chair of the review panel told councillors (and officers) that while the council was not as bad as some of its critics claimed, it was not as good as it thought it was either.

Other external agencies have remarked time and again on the council's defensiveness and unwillingness to accept criticism; Mr James was famously told on one occasion to grow a thicker skin.

What the Breckman and Burns cases do tell us is that the corporate culture Mark James has developed within the council during his overly long tenure persists to this day. It is a culture based on a refusal ever to apologise or accept responsibility for mistakes.

Both cases could have been settled years ago, but Mr James's intransigence and arrogance serve only to ensure that the misery and injustice continue, and the stain on the council's reputation endures.


Delyth Jenkins said...

Both cases shocking. Sounds like Mrs Breckman;s meeting with the Chief Executive was very similar to the one I had with him. For the first part he was very bullish and yelled at me to 'back off a bit'. It had been a very emotional week for me as I had received the Ombudsman''s report which had completely vindicated me and had slated the Council. I regret to say it but his attitude had me in tears. When he saw that he had 'broken' me he 'backed off ' and his attitude changed. I was accompanied by my MP at the time, Nick Ainger.
A Senior HR officer was also in attendance and witnessed his attitude towards me.

When I left the room to compose myself the CE apparently made a comment about me but Mr Ainger reminded him that I had fought this complaint single-handed for over 4 years. Do Councillors allow bullying of employee's by a Senior member of staff?

Anonymous said...

There are now too many on-going complaints to ignore. There must be an independent enquiry into these and other cases too.

Anonymous said...

Seeking to have a case struck out before it got anywhere near a courtroom is the entitlement of any legal proceedings for defendants or claimants alike.

It is up to the courts to determine whether any matter should be struck out prior to reaching a court room and the tests are quite rigourous. If I were the Breckmans I would pursue the matter through the courts and see what the council does. At the very least having an external judiciary involved might result in revealing much of what is suspected in this tin-pot dictatorship.

Having seen our own little fat one in Carmarthen recently with his tan matching the Arthur Daly coat he struck a lonely, but small figure, much like Ebineezer Scrooge...

Anonymous said...

Are we surprised, he has being doing this all his life

We know about Boston, Carmarthenshire County Council and now Cardiff Bay property development debacle

Wonder who knows what he got up too in his time in the London councils before he moved to Boston?

Stan said...

Excellent again, Cneifiwr. I am open-mouthed as I write, totally astonished at the way this so-called public servant deals with people who pay his grossly inflated salary. Really, how long can this go on? All I can think is someone at the top in the WAG has to be watching his back. Does he have something on them, I wonder?

Anonymous said...

Is bullying regarded as inappropriate behaviour I wonder?

Anonymous said...

I assume that Mrs Breckman has only recently received Mr James' threatening letter. It therefore seems a remarkable coincidence that on 23rd October the executive board "UNANIMOUSLY RESOLVED to approve the revised Customer Complaints & Compliments Procedure and the revised Unacceptable Actions by Complainants Policy."

Both these policies have remained apparently fit for purpose and unchanged since 2012. Both revised policies were approved on the nod at the the executive board meeting without any discussion.

The new and revised Customer Complaints and Compliments Procedure, created on 27th September 2017, puts a stop on a complainant persuing their complainant with the council once they have the temerity to
take it up with the Public Services Ombudsman - "... the PSOW will be the final avenue open to a customer if they are not satisfied with the Council’s response..."

It would seem, as usual, Mr James ensures that CCC changes its policies to suit his own agenda and councillors are only too happy to comply.