Saturday 1 February 2014

Light breaks on secret lots, or: 'an honest mistake', by the Daftarrest council

Light breaks on secret lots,
On tips of thought where thoughts smell in the rain;
When logics die,
The secret of the soil grows through the eye
Dylan Thomas

Updated below, Monday:

Events in Carmarthenshire continue to develop and bemuse those of us waiting to see the outcome of this week's reports from the Welsh Audit Office, which found that pension and libel indemnity payments made by the County Council to 'Daftarrest' Chief Executive Mark James were unlawful.

Mark James: unwell

It seems Mr James was unwell on the day after the reports were published, and was unable to come into work. And then a long and rather awkward silence from the Council had the people of Carmarthenshire on tenterhooks, waiting for news of action from the authority: what would happen next?
As well as the 'Daftarrest' blogger  Caebrwyn - Jacqui Thompson - whose libel action in the High Court was subject to a counter claim by Mr James, funded by public money as a result of the unlawful indemnity, Carmarthenshire County Council is also blessed with the attentions of another local blogger, sheep shearer and cockle merchant, YCneifiwr, whose blog is an exemplary work of citizen journalism: incisive, witty and very well informed. 

As reported by him here:

in one of several fascinating posts since the reports were issued, the eventual statement from the local authority, once published, took on a life of its own, losing and gaining paragraphs, over the course of the day, a work in progress, ebbing and flowing with the tide of - what? The direction of legal advice? The sea of panic that was clearly engulfing the authority? 

The current version is published here, and reads as follows: 

"CARMARTHENSHIRE Council has spoken out in response to the Wales Audit Office report that ruled the council acted ‘contrary to law’ by making a decision that allows senior officers to opt out of the Local Government Pension Scheme. The opt out meant senior council officers were avoiding potential tax liabilities – and being paid a ‘supplement’, equivalent to their pension contributions. 

Regarding the issue of the pay supplement in lieu of employer’s pension contributions, we are pleased to note that the Auditor does not form the view that the policy itself was unlawful, but that it was the procedural process that was flawed. This is in accordance with the legal advice that we ourselves have received. 

We fully accept his findings on the matters of procedure, particularly that the matter should have been included as a separate item on the agenda for the meeting, and have already taken steps to ensure that such errors are not repeated in future. 

Although the report author was present at the meeting, he has not benefitted personally in any way from the decision, nor would he ever be likely to do so, and there is no question of anyone seeking to influence the decision in order to gain any material advantage. The procedural errors were an honest mistake and there has been no impropriety of any sort. We would also like to reiterate that the proposed alternative pension arrangements did not involve any additional cost to the authority. 

Regarding the indemnity, we sought legal advice from day one and remain convinced that the advice we have received, that the council has the power to grant such an indemnity in these circumstances, is correct. 

Although the Wales Audit Office has expressed an ‘opinion’, that opinion does not in itself determine that the council’s actions were unlawful. We have been completely open and consulted the Wales Audit Office at the outset, prior to granting the indemnity, and they did not advise against the action we took. 

Some months after the indemnity had been granted, the Wales Audit Office further confirmed to a member of the public who queried the decision that they felt the council’s action was lawful. Clearly they have now changed their minds, some considerable time after the decision was taken, and too late for us to turn back the clock. 

We remain firmly of the belief that we acted legally and properly as a caring employer should. The indemnity was just that, an indemnity against costs should the Chief Executive not be successful in his counter claim. In the event of course, he was successful and the judge awarded costs and damages against the other party. 

As a result, the costs should ultimately be met by the person who originated the legal action and not the council. 

Finally we want to assure everyone there will be a full and open debate on these reports at full council in due course. The press and public are of course always welcome to attend, and the proceedings will be filmed via webcam for everyone to watch on our website. We look forward to being able to bring all the facts to this public forum to demonstrate that our actions and intentions were honourable and lawful at all times".

"The procedural errors were an honest mistake and there has been no impropriety of any sort

The authority therefore accepts no blame, seeks to blame the advice of others for any mistakes, and considers the matter to be of no serious consequence. 

 Local politicians who had called for sackings and resignations in the wake of the condemnatory reports, on reading this statement were confronted with the clearest of indications that Mr James, council leader Kevin Madge, and anyone else implicated in the unlawful payments had no intention whatsoever of standing down, or even conceding that they had knowingly done anything seriously wrong.

 Kevin Madge

Furthermore, in the original version, the statement had contained the following declaration:

"We remain firmly of the belief that we acted legally and properly as a caring employer should. Our Chief Executive was subject to a campaign of defamation and harassment. He was being victimised not because of anything in his personal life, but because of the job he does for us. This was borne out by the findings of the court judgement. It is only right and proper that we defend and support one of our employees who may find themselves in such an exceptional situation purely because they were doing their job.

Any good employer would do the same.

Now why would they withdraw this paragraph, do you think?

Mrs Angry is particularly drawn to this phrase: 

'He was being victimised not because of anything in his personal life, but because of the job he did for us.'


An admission, arguably, that the libel action was supported by the council because Jacqui Thompson was, as she has always maintained, targeting what she said were issues of public interest, that is to say actions of the council, rather driven by any personal objective centred on Mr James himself. How very interesting.

Following the council's statement, the Appointed Auditor responded in no uncertain terms:

"Regarding the issue of the pay supplement in lieu of employer's pension contributions, the process was significantly flawed, thereby rendering the policy unlawful. In particular, the council have not demonstrated proper exercise of discretion in setting ‘reasonable remuneration’.

In relation to the granting of an indemnity to the Chief Executive, the Appointed Auditor firmly remains of the view that the decision was unlawful.

If the Council does not accept this view, the Appointed Auditor may apply to the courts for a declaration that the item of account is contrary to law."

So: no resignations, no sackings, no suspensions pending any investigations - and not even the chance of any council debate of the Audit Reports until March. Business as usual, in fact.

Extraordinary, you might think - and so does the leader of the Plaid Cymru opposition, Peter Hughes-Griffiths, as you may see from this strongly worded statement:
Peter Hughes-Griffith

“It is imperative that these two extremely damaging reports are discussed as a matter of urgency.  Carmarthenshire residents deserve answers and the council group I lead is not prepared to wait.

“We cannot go into a meeting to discuss the authority’s budget next month when we have no confidence in the political leadership and some of the council’s senior staff.

“Carmarthenshire Council has been bereft of political leadership which has sadly continued since the publication of these reports.   It appears that every member of the Executive Board has gone into hiding and has not taken an ounce of responsibility for their actions.

“If I was leading this authority I would have at the very least suspended senior officers pending further investigation.  It is the bare minimum which should be done given the seriousness of the Auditor’s findings.  Furthermore, if I was responsible for spending tens of thousands of pounds unlawfully, I would do the honourable thing and stand down.

“The opposition group will meet on Monday evening to discuss presenting motions of no confidence against three Executive Board members and two senior officers.  There is overwhelming evidence from the Wales Audit Office to say these people cannot continue in their posts.
“I emphasise that an extraordinary meeting must be held.  The people of Carmarthenshire will rightly expect their local councillor – irrespective of political party – to agree to this meeting without hesitation. 

Local politicians are aghast at the refusal by the leadership of Carmarthenshire County Council to acknowledge the seriousness of the Audit report findings, and have acted quickly to raise the issue at a more senior level: as reported here in the South Wales Guardian , a written  question has been put by MP Jonathan Edwards to the Leader of the House of Commons, and AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas is raising a similar point with the Welsh government's Minister for Local Government. 

As reported in a subsequent article in the same paper, council leader Kevin Madge has responded to Mr Hughes-Griffiths by referring to him as a 'complete hypocrite' and described his criticisms as 'a sanctimonious rant'.
Kevin Madge and Mark James at the controversial development the council is supporting in partnership with the evangelical Christian Towy Church group.

Dear me. 

Not long after serious concerns were first raised about the unlawful payments, calls were made for Carmarthenshire County Council to be placed into special measures. 

In the light of such obstinate refusal by the leadership of this authority to accept responsibility for what has clearly been a very serious failure in the democratic processes and management of this authority, this course of action, frankly, would now seem to be the only way forward. 

Updated Monday:

Another extraordinary day of events in Carmarthenshire: this morning the South Wales Guardian reported here that local MP Jonathan Edwards had made a request to Dyfed Powys Police to investigate Mark James and his colleague Linda Rees Jones, head of legal services, in regard to possible misconduct in regard to the two payments declared as unlawful by the Welsh Audit Office. The police have confirmed they are liasing with the CPS and another police force in regard to the Auditor's report.

As you may read in the rather intemperate press release issued in response by Carmarthenshire County Council, the executive members of the council are absolutely refusing to admit that there may have been any serious wrongdoing, and have gone so far as to accuse the MP -oh dear, here we go again - of making libellous statements:

Statement on behalf of Carmarthenshire County Council’s Executive Board:

There is a saying in this country that has been upheld over many years and that is – innocent until proven guilty.

However, this sentiment appears to have been lost on an MP who penned a letter, copied to the press, which finds two Carmarthenshire County Council senior officers guilty of varying charges without making any pretence of fairness or balance.

We understand he has asked two police forces to look into this matter prior to council even having the opportunity to look at all the information and debate these issues. This is premature at best, or political opportunism at its worst.

The letter contains libellous and factually inaccurate statements, which is ironic because if the officers concerned issued information of this nature they would be pilloried for doing so.  
It appears the MP feels he has licence to publish any information regardless of checking all the facts which is extremely unfair on the individuals concerned.

Both officers robustly deny they have acted in any way other than a professional and proper manner and are confident that this will be supported by the evidence when the matters go before full council.

As an executive board they have our full support and we are sure that they will be vindicated, it would be wise if opposition politicians waited to see the full evidence before making judgement.
It would seem that in the view of the executive board of Carmarthenshire County Council, the due process of the law is of less importance than the deliberations of a council meeting. A rather peculiar view, one might conclude, and one with which no doubt the investigating police forces will have little sympathy.

Whatever next? 


Cneifiwr said...

Thanks, Mrs A. As always a very, very good summary. At several points on Thursday and Friday things were moving so fast that even those of us who follow events closely felt we were losing the plot.

One of the most explosive revelations came on Friday when the auditor responded to an extremely misleading council statement which sought to cast doubt on the auditor's competence and integrity.

What we now know is that the council ignored advice to seek legal opinion on the indemnity and carried on regardless. When the auditor himself realised what had happened, he sought expert legal opinion and provided it to the council some 5 months before the libel trial began.

It is clear that the council dismissed that advice and most likely concealed it from all but a handful of individuals. It was certainly not presented to the full council.

What that means in plain terms is that Mr James and a few other players pressed on, determined to take the case to court in the knowledge that the Audit Office had stated that the indemnity was unlawful.

Events are set to gather pace next week.

Journalists from the mainstream media, bloggers and opposition politicians here have all received an overwhelming response from outraged members of the public, but a well-placed source heard a senior council figure dismissing it as "just headlines which will soon blow over".

How wrong they will be shown to be.

Anonymous said...

If I was innocent, as Carmarthenshire County Council maintain, I would want to clear my name immediately and not wait until March for a full Council meeting to debate this issue.

Mrs Angry said...

How very interesting, Cneifiwr, your comment in terms of the timing of events. I imagine that lawyers for Jacqui Thompson are reviewing this information and related matters with great interest.

Mrs Angry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

If anything shows that council leadership (members and officers) is not fit-for-purpose it is the latest press release. It appers to show that there is deep-seated institutional paranoia and probably worse.

I feel very sorry for the principled officers and members who are having to deal with these completely out-of-control people on a day to day basis; it must be so demoralising and stressful for them.

The press release actually has me thinking that things are even much worse than most people could imagine and the sooner this council is dismantled the better as the top level is now so toxic.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Mrs Angry for this excellent blog and your sustained support in raising awareness of our despicable local authority.