Thursday 13 February 2014

Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break ... #daftarrest, a year on: Mark James and a police investigation

Twisting on racks when sinews give way,   
Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
Faith in their hands shall snap in two
Updated Friday: Mark James to 'stand aside' ... see below for statement from leader Kevin Madge.

The truly breathtaking sequence of events in Carmarthenshire, in the case of #daftarrest Chief Executive Mark James, and the payments found to be unlawful by the Welsh Audit Office, continues on what would appear to be a headlong drop into a state of anarchy.

Having resisted all calls to censure or suspend Mr James, council leader Kevin Madge is sticking to his guns, and he and his executive board, comprised of a coalition of Labour and Independent members, have obstinately refused to bow to the weight of criticism levelled at them and tried to carry on with life as normal. 

A series of absurd statements issued from the council's press office have sniped at anyone who dared to suggest that this dysfunctional behaviour was inappropriate, and made it clear that no action would be taken other than to discuss the auditors' reports at a forthcoming council meeting. 

In the meanwhile, documents were released which had been promised as the vindication of the authority's stance, proving that they had merely followed the legal advice given to them before entering into the unlawful payments, in particular the now infamous indemnity which enabled Mark James to enter a counter claim against blogger Jacqui Thompson, in the course of the libel case.

These documents, in fact,  proved nothing of the sort, one being advice from a QC which  seemed clearly to suggest caution in pursuing the indemnity: the other being opinion stated after the event, which was therefore largely irrelevant.

Yesterday saw the first council meeting since the row blew up, in which the admirable Councillor Sian Caiach dared to try to raise the issue of the unlawful payments, pointing out that there were legal precedents which required all councillors who had taken part in the approval of Mr James' payments (as many would now admit, misled by what is alleged to have been a 'sexed-up' dossier on the matter) to declare an interest.

Sian Caiach, despite every effort to silence her,  has very often been the only councillor brave enough to voice concern about the regime in County Hall, and even had her own emails 'snooped' on during the course of the controversy surrounding the remarks made by Mr James which led to Jacqui's  libel action. The animosity which such robust opposition provokes from certain members and officers is palpable, and evident in yesterday's meeting, live streamed for all to watch.

The Chair of the meeting, whom all councillors obey with instant obedience, as if he were the Almighty, would extend no tolerance to Councillor Caiach's bold attempt to mention the unmentionable. Things became so heated, in fact, that at one point he was obliged to - and Mrs Angry can barely bring herself to put this in writing - to stand up, as a sign of her impertinence.

It was the performance of a little man, completely out of his depth, but of course with a magnificent chain around his neck, which endowed him with power to silence the embarrassing interjections of red headed women who do not know their place, and dare to question the rightful authority of non elected officers, witnessed approvingly by those very non elected officers, sat at his lefthand side, pens poised, and eyes and ears on full alert.

The extraordinary spectacle of two senior officers who were involved in the financial transactions that have been labelled as unlawful, participating in a council meeting as if nothing had happened, suddenly become even more absurd when one of them, the head of legal services, Linda Rees Jones, took it upon herself to answer Councillor Caiach, remarking with studied insouciance that she, Councillor Caiach, was attempting to introduce the issue of the unlawful payments 'through the back door'. She also made an astonishing reference to the councillor's involvement in the libel case hearing, (which Mrs Rees Jones herself attended throughout, taking copious notes) but the Chair prevented Sian from responding to her comment.

That a senior officer, an employee of the council, should assume the sort of position in which it is possible to speak to an elected member in this way tells you so much about the inversion of democracy which passes for normal in this rotten borough. But the fact that the issue that was being referred to directly involved the officer, in her role as legal adviser, in these circumstances, was simply incredible. 

At a previous live streamed meeting last year, when another attempt was made to raise this issue, the meeting was summarily and speedily declared closed by the Chief Executive. His municipal pride rather slighted, the Chair had then rebuked him, daring to remind him that it was his duty to close the meeting. And this conflict between elected members and officers is the heart of the matter: the culture which has overtaken this authority in which roles have become exchanged, where behind closed doors, away from the prying eyes of scrutiny, senior officers have stepped over the limitations of office, and political leaders have allowed themselves to lose control of the direction of policy and administration.

After this meeting finished, in a natural response which perfectly set the scene for later developments, a fiercesome storm hit the county, with gale force winds, and seething rain, followed by power cuts, plunging some areas into darkness, and a period of isolation.

The council's official site ignored the interesting events which were happening in County Hall and talked a lot about the windy weather, and Dylan Thomas' writing shed. 

(Today there is a heartening story which tells us: 'Carmarthenshire Trading Standards and Dyfed Powys Police have joined a nationwide initiative to help the victims of scams'.)

At the end of the afternoon, however, another event was to take a grip of the news outlets and social media: an announcement from Dyfed-Powys police:

 "We have now fully considered the three public interest reports published on January 30 2014 by Wales Audit Office into matters relating to Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire County Councils.

As a result, the force has decided that it is a matter which should be investigated in the public interest by the police, to ascertain whether or not any criminal offences have taken place.

Due to the close working relationships and partnership arrangements that exist between Dyfed-Powys Police and both local authorities, it is not appropriate for the force to carry out the enquiry. As such the matter has been referred to Gloucestershire Constabulary who will undertake the investigation.

Dyfed-Powys Police would like to make it absolutely clear that this decision has been taken by the police alone, and has in no way been influenced by political commentary or media reporting on this issue."

With this statement made, the next step was sure to follow - or so everyone expected - that is to say, the immediate suspension at least of the Chief Executive, Mark James, and possibly other officers involved in the matter.

To the widespread astonishment of all, nothing happened. Rumours about suspensions were firmly rebuffed by the council's press team. No one was standing down, or resigning. 

Leader Kevin Madge eventually issued a statement, 'welcoming' the police involvement:

"We need an end to the political point-scoring that have dogged this authority, and I am hopeful that the other parties and groups are willing to put aside past differences and work together to secure a better future for Carmarthenshire.” 

Political point scoring. 

His response to the allegations of unlawful activity, and a consequent police investigation would be to ask the Welsh Local Government Association to undertake a review of the governance arrangements of Carmarthenshire County Council.

Mr Madge is the deputy chair of the Welsh Local Government Association.

As you might imagine, local politicians were incensed by this response: Plaid MP Jonathan Edwards declared:

The Labour leader of Carmarthenshire Council, Kevin Madge, has been dragged kicking and screaming into showing just an ounce of leadership but he has failed.  He has failed again today with his response to the police investigation.  For the past thirteen days Kevin Madge has been more interested in issuing personal attacks on anyone who dared to question his extremely poor judgement.

Now that we have a police investigation underway, the Chief Executive should be immediately suspended from his post.  It beggars belief that the Chief Executive is in office whilst the police are investigating whether any criminal activity has taken place. Carmarthenshire Council, with the Labour and Independent parties at the helm, is bereft of leadership.

Peter Hughes-Griffiths, leader of the Plaid group in Carmarthenshire Couny Council commented:
The response of the Labour council leader is totally unbelievable. How can he justify not immediately suspending the council's Chief Executive? His suggestion of an external inquiry by the WLGA is quite pathetic.

Cllr Madge seems to have lost his grasp on the situation entirely. As Leader, he failed to take decisive action when the reports were published and he has failed to take decisive action today. How can he remain in his post?  The public will think it disgraceful that the council leader has ducked the political decisions required in his role.

Some reports claim that James was asked to step down voluntarily yesterday. Clearly, if that was the case, then he has refused to do so. 

Jonathan Edwards is absolutely right: it certainly does beggar belief that James is being allowed to remain in his post while police launch a criminal investigation into financial payments to him. In what other post, in these circumstances, would someone, any employee, continue to work as normal? 

Most important of all, how can it possibly be appropriate that the Chief Executive and any other senior officer that has had direct involvement in this matter is able to have access to material which will be of interest to the police, without completely compromising the integrity of the investigation?

Mark James and Kevin Madge have made a laughing stock of themselves, of their own authority, the Welsh Labour party, and are likely to extend the compliment to the Welsh Government, too, if urgent action is not taken to intervene in this farcical situation.

Jacqui Thompson now reports that an emergency executive board meeting will be held, in secret, this afternoon at 5pm. One last chance, perhaps, for the council to redeem at least some of its tarnished reputation, and begin to win back the trust of the people of Carmarthenshire, before it is all too late - if that point has not already been reached.

It will be exactly a year ago tomorrow that the #daftarrest libel trial began in the High Court.

What a year it has been.

*Updated Friday:

Carmarthenshire County Council has published a statement this evening announcing that Chief Executive Mark James will, after all, be 'standing aside' from his duties, to 'avoid any perception of undue influence being brought to bear' ...

Statement by Cllr Kevin Madge, Leader of Carmarthenshire County Council:

“By mutual agreement the Chief Executive Mr Mark James will no longer undertake his duties as Chief Executive from now until Police enquiries concerning the two Wales Audit Office Public Interest Reports have been concluded.

I welcome the police investigation which will give the public the assurance they deserve.

“The Auditor has not referred his reports to the police nor has he made any suggestions of any criminal wrongdoing, and I hope that the investigation can be concluded as quickly as possible in order for us as a council to move forward.

During the absence of the Chief Executive his role will be performed by the current Deputy Chief Executive Mr Dave Gilbert.”

Mr James added that he was absolutely certain that neither he nor any of his officers had done anything wrong but that it was only right and proper that  he should not be in the office whilst the police concluded their enquiries.   This would avoid any perception of undue influence being brought to bear.

Mr James hoped that the police enquiry could be conducted as quickly as possible as this was in everyone’s best interest.

Cllr Madge concluded:  “I have nothing further to say on this matter, there will be a full, frank and public debate on the reports at the Council meeting of February 27.”

This announcement has puzzled many of those observing events in Carmarthenshire: what exactly does this 'absence' mean? Is he suspended, or not: and if not, why not? Is this the correct procedure, in line with the constitution? Are there any other senior officers who should also be stepping down, while the police investigate the matter?

Local MP Jonathan Edwards has expressed his concern about this ambiguous move in the local press and demanded that leader Kevin Madge clarify the situation :

"He needs to publish a statement regarding the full terms and conditions of the chief executive's departure.

County residents need assurance that the chief executive is to have no contact with elected members or employees whilst the police investigation is ongoing, or to have access to any of the council's computer and telephone systems."


Anonymous said...

The only parallel I can think of is Rebeka Wade at News International, look where she is now.

Mrs Angry said...

Brooks resigned, was not suspended: presumably a personal decision. Who knows what will happen in this case. But in the public interest, in such circumstances, clearly the parties involved in any investigation should step aside from whatever role he or she has - this bears no implication of guilt, but is merely a procedural matter and is surely what most people would expect in any public sector or corporate organisation.

Anonymous said...

Oh dear, here's me thinking the parallel anon 17:06 was referring to was the incestuous relationship.

Thank you Mrs Angry for another excellent blog!