Monday, 17 February 2014

White envelopes on the back seat of a limousine, or: a trip to Pembrokeshire

Auditor Anthony Barrett - pics courtesy Jacob Williams

Updated Tuesday: see below

Mrs Angry tried very hard not to write this post - very hard. 

Too many other things to see to, too little time, but in the end, the very thought of keeping quiet was keeping her awake at night, amongst all the other awful thoughts that pop into your head at three in the morning, and make you toss and turn, and throw your pillow on the floor, and lie there, muttering to yourself. Paints an attractive picture, doesn't it?

Kept awake, this weekend, not just by the usual apocalyptic scale of worries, and howling wind in the chimney, and driving rain against the window, but also by visions of white envelopes, brown envelopes, grinning QCs, smug council officers, and middle aged men in tired suits trying valiantly to speak out on behalf of what is right, and fair, and being outwitted - almost - by the intrigues of bungling small town worthies, who perhaps are not so worthy as they think they look, when they admire themselves in the mirror in the gents, whilst pointing Percy at the porcelain, after a slap up lunch at the Town Hall, but rather deserve to be thrown out of office by their electors at the earliest opportunity, in the view of Mrs Angry, which is a view they may wish to dispute, but is going to be expressed anyway.

Yes: we are talking about Pembrokeshire County Council, and the truly 'extraordinary' meeting held on Friday, held to debate the circumstances of their own payments crisis, in tandem with their chums at Carmarthenshire, over a pension contribution made to their own Chief Executive, which, as in the other case,  has been deemed to be unlawful by the Welsh Audit Office. 

Mrs Angry recommends reading this post, by a bright and articulate member of the council, Jacob Williams:

and you may now sit and enjoy the spectacle of the webcast meeting via this link:

The other link between the two authorities is that they are blessed with the advice of QC Mr Tim Kerr, who was in attendance at the meeting, along with the Appointed Auditor, Anthony Barrett. The scene was set, therefore, for a performance to remember - and no spectator, either in the chamber, or via the live-streamed webcast, was shortchanged in terms of drama.

Mr Kerr - or Mr Kerr-Ching - as he is rather cheekily described in the comments stream of Another Blog, written by the inimitable Y Cneifiwr , appeared non plussed, at the beginning of the meeting.

Relaxed, even cheerful: he grinned as the proceedings got under way, and while the opening exchanges began. Towards the end of the session, perhaps, he was a little less inclined to seem quite so well entertained. He had pretty well shrugged off the differing opinion held by Mr Barrett of the legal background to the pension payment, and sat happily as the conflict between the opposition Labour councillors and senior executive members began to take hold, but as their acute questioning began to shift the mood of the meeting from one of disapproval to one of outrage, no one could have maintained their professional equanimity without some swiftly calculated adjustments, and a rising sense of wishing to be back on the train to London, with no further ado.

The leader of the council, Jamie Adams, is part of the mysterious Independent Plus group, IPPG, that runs Pembrokeshire, and he appears to be of the firm conviction that speaking about even the most sensational issue in a low, slow, slow black, sloe black, (* Mrs Angry did threaten you with Under Milk Wood, and there it is, see) carefully modulated tone, over an unbearably long period of time, will convince any listener that what he says must be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but, and that there is absolutely no reason whatsoever, in any sense of the word, if we can even define what that word is, and of course we should perhaps bear in mind that no one knows or cares, and are you still listening, and what was I saying? 

Councillors were being expected to debate a report on the payment which was redacted, and whose contents, therefore, they were not allowed to see. This ludicrous arrangement was justified on the interesting basis that the report contained 'privileged' information, part of the advice which Mr Kerr had provided to his two clients, ie Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire councils. It was eventually agreed that members might, if they were very lucky, be able to see at least some of this advice, at some point, and encouraged by this rather flimsy promise they voted to accept the auditor's findings. Before they saw the report with the legal advice. 

Mr Barrett left.

Next came a motion that the Chief Executive should be suspended, pending the outcome of the police investigation. And this was where things became very interesting indeed. Mr Kerr was still present, which perhaps was a surprise until it emerged that he was there to advise on a matter which clearly had been deeply troubling the Monitoring Officer, although perhaps not to the extent where he felt he should mention his concerns to all of the councillors involved, before the proceedings began. Clearly he felt in the middle of the meeting was the most appropriate time to inform them of his anguish on their behalf.

During the meeting some councillors had raised questions as to by whom, and for whom, exactly, Mr Kerr-Ching was employed. He replied for the corporate authority, but it was clear that many members felt his well rewarded services were being used selectively by a minority of members, and some senior officers, and the following revelation certainly appeared to support such a claim. In fact, he appeared to have been placed in an invidious position at this meeting, as regards the following gambit, as we shall see.

Mr Kerr now confessed to being in possession of a number of clippings from local newspaper articles which might be thought to indicate that certain councillors had prejudged the matter, being in favour of the suspension, and could therefore not take part in the vote. 

Rather oddly, the councillors in the clippings had indeed all spoken in favour of the suspension, and there appeared to be no information supplied to Mr Kerr about those who had opposed it.

Earlier in the proceedings, a councillor had remarked, in relation to the arguments over the redacted report: I can still smell the Carmarthenshire thing ... Now, fee fi fo fum: I smell the blood of an Englishman, apparently presented with a 'dodgy dossier' of selective material by a mysterious benefactor - the opposition councillors in the chamber flared their nostrils.

Where had Mr Kerr obtained this material? It had been handed to him. 

Or rather, as it transpired, he had found it, stuffed in an envelope - a white envelope, not a brown one - on the back seat of the chauffeur driven limousine which had collected him from the salubrious point of arrival that is Port Talbot railway station.

Uh oh: a pointy finger from the Chair of Pembrokeshire County Council, watched by Monitoring Officer and white envelope stuffer Laurence Harding, far right.

Further questions from angry councillors revealed that the white envelope had been stuffed with clippings by Mr Laurence Harding, the white bearded Monitoring Officer, who had been presiding over this meeting with steely determination - and a pack of cards up his sleeve.

As Jacob Williams observes, the role of a Monitoring Officer is meant to be one of utmost neutrality. Why was his concern about predetermined opinion not conveyed to all affected members before the meeting? Which members were affected? Why did the envelope left for Mr Kerr reportedly only include information about those calling for the suspension? On whose initiative was he acting, or was this his own idea? The response to this was unclear.

And whose names were stuffed in the envelope? Which councillors should now consider leaving the room?

There then played out a teasing hesitation by the officer and m'learned friend, couched in terms of becoming delicacy and discretion, about releasing this information, or not, which was absurd, in such circumstances, and the ensuing debacle led some members to conclude, unsurprisingly, that the whole rigmarole had been contrived by unknown parties in order to obstruct the vote to suspend the Chief Executive. 

Conspiracy, or cock-up? Whatever the cause, the end result was not what had been expected: angrily, but with commendable dignity, the Labour members walked out en masse, leaving only a few councillors remaining in the chamber - and the sponsors of the motion made sure it was withdrawn.

News just in from a story in the Western Telegraph reports that, quite incredibly, Bryn Parry-Jones, the Chief Executive of Pembrokeshire, will NOT be standing down, or aside, from his post during the police investigation into potential criminal offences in regard to payments to him.

In the meanwhile, what do the interesting events in Pembrokeshire mean for the course of direction of the payments saga across the county border, in Carmarthenshire, where, at last the Chief Executive has not stood down, but aside, in a curious, crab like movement, possibly aimed to look like suspension, without the painful associations? 

The same honoured guests, Mr Barrett and Mr Kerr, will be attending a similar meeting to the one in Pembrokeshire on February 27th, and the same, or similar, tactics may well be adopted in order to try to prevent any embarrassing votes - or too much dangerous debate.

Prejudgement may or may not now be argued to have taken place in Carmarthenshire: the argument rests in whether or not opinions expressed were predetermination, or predisposition, the latter being allowable, as subject to change as a result of the meeting and debate.

Councillor Sian Caiach has made a very astute observation in a comment left on Jacob William's post:

I don’t think the white envelope trick is likely but if it is played, considering the alleged goings on in Labour and Indy recent group meetings, might Plaid Cymru have an impressive majority as the only major group relatively untainted by predetermination?
In other words, for once the Labour group, now said to be rather less keen than their tenacious Independent group partners on supporting Mr James, may find only their opposition colleagues able to take part in any vote.

Councillor Caiach also made the following remark: referring to the recent meeting of the council in which the Monitoring Officer and chief legal officer of Carmarthenshire, Mrs Linda Rees-Jones, made rather surprising suggestions regarding Cllr Caiach's involvement in Mr James' libel case:

Our monitoring officer has mentioned to me that given my willingness to give evidence in the libel trial against the chief exec, arguing that his action was against free speech, I could be infringing our code of conduct, [I didn't actually give evidence in court as there were no questions from CCC who accepted my written evidence] ...

Mrs Angry seems to recall that Mrs Rees-Jones herself gave written evidence to the case, and indeed attended the case with Mr James, taking notes throughout the hearing, so such a remark might seem puzzling, as there would appear to have been no requirement for her to recuse herself from any council meetings in which the indemnity payment may be discussed, which might thought to be a reasonable expectation.

And then Sian continues, my emphasis in red: 

... but at the time I’m afraid I believed that, although the legal action was unfair, the decision to fund the CEO’s counter-suit was lawful as the executive board had told us it was a perfectly legal loophole way of allowing our council to counter-sue bloggers using an officer as a proxy. It was explained to us as a legitimate way of putting pressure on the blogger to withdraw her original legal action.
If Councillor Caiach's allegation is correct, then nothing could be more clear: the threat of legal action, funded as we are now told, unlawfully, by the public purse, was invoked in order to try to prevent a troublesome critic of the authority from continuing with an action that challenged the authority itself, through the position of the Chief Executive.

And that is why the story of what is happening in Carmarthenshire is so important - the issue which lies at the heart of this story, and underlines the significance of the outcome for all bloggers and journalists who dare to try to hold local authorities to account. 

This is about the intimidation of individuals who raise issues of genuine public interest and will not be silenced. 

It is the story of Jacqui Thompson, the woman who refused to keep quiet, and now stands to lose her home as a consequence. 

And the story continues. 

*Updated Tuesday:

Caebrwyn - blogger Jacqui Thompson - reports today that officers of Caerphilly Council are now facing charges of misconduct in public office, after a police investigation into allegations of unlawful payments. See here:

She also publishes a strongly worded statement from the leader of Carmarthenshire's opposition, Plaid's Peter Hughes-Griffiths, made in the light of the meeting in Pembrokeshire, which involved contributions from QC Mr Timothy Kerr. 

Mr Kerr, it seems, may not receive the warmest of  welcomes in Carmarthenshire, on his next visit to South Wales:

 "At next week’s Extraordinary Meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council (Thurs. 27 Feb) to discuss a damning Wales Audit Office report, the Plaid Cymru opposition group will present a motion of no confidence in three senior councillors.

The issue is already the subject of a police inquiry and the council’s Chief Executive has agreed to ‘stand aside’ pending its outcome.
 Following a meeting last night of the 28-strong Plaid group on the county council, their leader Cllr Peter Hughes Griffiths, made this statement.

It’s unbelievable that Chief Executive Mark James was not immediately suspended once the police inquiry was announced. Council Leader Kevin Madge dithered and dallied until the situation became totally untenable. Even then, we only had a ‘compromise’ agreement.
We still don’t know the conditions relating to Mr James’ ‘standing aside’.  The press have been told by the council that Mr James remains on full pay, although they’ve told us – as elected members - nothing.That said, the important thing is that the Chief Executive is out of the frame until this issue is resolved.
Plaid Cymru will fiercely resist any attempt at interference in a democratic debate and vote on this most important issue at next week’s extraordinary meeting to discuss the Wales Audit Office report. 

We will not be dictated to by London QC Timothy Kerr, who, when he appeared in Pembrokeshire council chamber last week, acted as monitoring officer for the Executive Board by naming councillors he believed should not take part in the debate due to having made allegedly prejudicial comments in the press.
We maintain it is Mr Kerr who should not be allowed to participate in any debate. Indeed, he need not come to Carmarthen at all. Although we’ve not been given the actual sum, it’s believed that Mr Kerr will be paid at least £6,000 for attending the meeting on the 27th to give advice.     
Plaid believes this is an irresponsible and unnecessary waste of taxpayers’ money. The Executive Board are throwing good money after bad in their stubborn defence of the indefensible, being the Welsh Auditor’s ruling that they acted unlawfully in two matters. 
Their arrogant attitude compounds the original ‘offence’ and shows why council Leader Kevin Madge should stand down.
At the council meeting on the 27th Plaid will present a Notice of Motion of no confidence in Cllr Madge, past Leader Cllr Meryl Gravell and present deputy Leader Cllr. Pam Palmer on the grounds that all three were members of the Executive Board that made the decisions deemed ‘unlawful’ by the WAO."


Anonymous said...

And what is all this about from the Barnet Bugle?

Mrs Angry said...

Yes: well, for once Bugle is right ... certain councillors hauled up before the pathetic replacement for the Standards committee are being dealt with in secret, in total contradiction of the interests of transparency and an open democracy. We should be given an explanation for this.

Anonymous said...

And what sort of Standards is the Standards Committee setting here then!

But, not to worry, worst they can do is slap wrists and, when they were my wrists in a similar situation some years ago, it was well worth it - especially when I went to the press afterwards! And in those days they could suspend you which they can't do now.

Do the councillors know they have the right to be accompanied by a "friend" I wonder, or has that been kept secret from them?

Mrs Angry said...

Some councillors in Broken Barnet may not have any friends, Anonymous.

Do tell us why your wrists needed slapping: Mrs Angry is intrigued.

Anonymous said...

I was an independent with a lot influence but no power. My influence upset the majority party. I was told to resign from a "working group" because I refused to accept that it should meet in secret and my views were unacceptable because they were contrary to theirs (views that had got me elected). It was a useless rubber-stamping group (they just liked the idea of meeting in secret, nothing was ever decided there it was all done elsewhere) so I resigned, explaining that pressure had been brought to bear on me, named names and released my letter of resignation to the press.

Reported for bringing into disrepute. Result: slapped wrists, more influence and lots of new supporters!

Mrs Angry said...

Well done, Anon: if only more councillors would show the same spirit, local government might begin to reclaim some degree of integrity in public life.

Always interesting to observe councils such as in Cornwall and Wales where independent members completely change the dynamics of an administration.

Here in Barnet our only independent member is Brian Coleman, a status which is the cause of so much amusement to onlookers, and a fitting end to his political career.

Anonymous said...

There are few real Independents. For example, one district area near me has a reputation for being rather bolshie. As a result, an "Independent" is carefully chosen by a group of majority councillors, people vote for him, thinking this is true and feel self-satisfied. He then votes 100% with the majority party AND gets to sit as an independent on committees that have to be by political composition, thus giving the majority party a guaranteed covert vote, which can tip the balance of the committee in their favour.

This happens everywhere. There are a few true independents, but fewer than the title suggests.

Mrs Angry said...

But that is disgraceful: is that even legal?

I have noticed that in certain areas, former mining areas, for example, where a Tory would be slaughtered at the ballot box, councillors with clearly Conservative agendas hide behind a pretence of independence, but this sort of thing is immoral, and should be exposed for what it is. If you haven't got the courage of your convictions, don't go into politics.

Anonymous said...

As far as I know it is totally legal though if you pay party subs it would be probably failing to declare an interest. But these "mock Independents" know this and ensure that they are not official party members.

There are many so-called politically representative committees all over the UK like this. If you have a cabinet system by law your overview and scrutiny committee must be politically representative. You could have 6 members of Party A, 4 members of Party B and 4 "Independents", but, of the Independents, 3 of them might be covert Party A, giving them a real total of 9 from Party A and 5 of Party B meaning that the committee always has a majority of Party A members.

Nasty isn't it?

Mrs Angry said...

But if it were possible to prove links between the official members, and faux independent ones, it might be possible to make a legal challenge to the representational balance, at least? Very nasty, as you say, not to say undemocratic.

Anonymous said...

The trouble is, the way "Standards" are dealt with now, it means that most dodgy councillors get away with most dodgy things. You could almost imagine that it had been designec that way .....

Mrs Angry said...

Well, yes: I blame Uncle Eric. No good having a localism policy supposedly aimed at empowering residents when at the same time you take away the only way of sanctioning the scheming buggers when they transgress the now even less stringent rules that apply to them.

Just as the Tories have backed out of any plans to allow MPs to be dumped if they get up to mischief, for some reason Pickles won't allow local taxpayers to have any authority over misbehaving councillors. Having a say only once every four years is simply not good enough - being stuck with the eejits until the next election is intolerable.

Still, at least we will wave goodbye to some of our more troublesome councillors here in May. Poignant thought, in some ways ... look: Mrs Angry has a tear in her eye ...