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Articles on this Page
- 05/11/18--06:41: _News round up - AGM...
- 05/30/18--05:43: _Swansea Bay City De...
- 06/18/18--12:52: _News round-up - Fam...
- 06/19/18--07:39: _£20,000 Returning O...
- 07/08/18--16:08: _Audit reports, and ...
- 07/11/18--04:41: _Wellness Village 'p...
- 07/22/18--12:00: _'Cadno and the Nigh...
- 07/27/18--14:34: _Plaid Cymru seek to...
- 07/29/18--02:56: _Mark James' complai...
- 08/08/18--07:58: _The unlawful libel ...
- 08/31/18--07:58: _News in brief - Wel...
- 09/08/18--09:14: _FOI news - Carmarth...
- 09/15/18--05:21: _Unlawful libel clau...
- 09/22/18--04:24: _Smoke and mirrors -...
- 05/11/18--06:41: News round up - AGMs, and more
- 05/30/18--05:43: Swansea Bay City Deal 'Agreement'...and Carmarthenshire's in charge
- 06/18/18--12:52: News round-up - Family Court, City Deals, swamps, and more
- 06/19/18--07:39: £20,000 Returning Officer fees - time to revisit the issue?
- 07/08/18--16:08: Audit reports, and more
- 07/11/18--04:41: Wellness Village 'private partners'...something oddly familiar?
- 07/27/18--14:34: Plaid Cymru seek to reinstate the unlawful libel clauses...really?!
- 08/08/18--07:58: The unlawful libel indemnity clauses - part two
- 08/31/18--07:58: News in brief - Wellness, Early Resolutions, and tax avoidance...
- 09/08/18--09:14: FOI news - Carmarthenshire council and the culture of secrecy
- 09/15/18--05:21: Unlawful libel clauses - Cllr Rob James' video
- 09/22/18--04:24: Smoke and mirrors - Indemnities, restrictions and Ombudsman costs
Early in 2015 the council was 'run' by Labour and Independents. However, former councillor Meryl Gravell (for 'Meryl' read Mark James) refused to work with Cllr Edmunds. His card was marked by Mr James when he helped spill the beans over the latter's bung to Scarlets Regional Ltd midway through 2014. This 'disloyalty', therefore, made him unacceptable as leader of the council and so 'Meryl' dumped Labour and formed a coalition with Plaid in June 2015.
Seen as the lesser of two evils, Emlyn Dole has turned out to be a remarkably loyal follower of the regime.
One of the problems faced by Labour in opposition has been an inability to challenge Plaid as many of the policies were started by Labour (and whilst Cllr Edmunds was the Executive Board Member for Resources), and merely continued by Plaid. This led to Cllr Edmunds starting every opposition statement with general agreement with whatever Plaid were doing.
As Rob James, previously a Neath councillor was only elected last May he, at least on a personal level, doesn't carry the same baggage. So, we'll see.
An interesting example of the democratic constipation arose a few weeks ago when Rob James questioned the executive decision to set up yet another arms-length company, 'wholly owned by the council'. The trend was started under Labour and, at the time, was challenged by Plaid; "The obsession of the Labour council with effectively outsourcing services and removing democratic oversight inevitably reduces the operational control the council has over our public services."
However, the tables have now turned and Cllr James' use of words such as outsourcing and privatisation were sneered at by Plaid, rubbished by the chief executive and even some of the Labour group shifted uncomfortably in their seats. Jobs and terms and conditions were all safe, they said, well, erm, for the first day of transfer anyway...oh.
Safe as houses eh? In the London Borough of Barnet, care workers were TUPE transferred to an arms-length company, 'Your Choice Barnet', 100% wholly owned by Barnet Council. Within a year, a third of the workforce had been made redundant and the care workers given a 9.5% pay cut. Hopefully this won't happen in Carmarthenshire...
Coincidentally, next Monday, the Executive Board will meet to approve the business plan for the latest arms-length company, Lleisant Delta Wellbeing Ltd...but, despite it being 'wholly owned' by the council, the decision will be held in secret, behind closed doors. How very transparent...
One advantage for Labour in electing a new leader to the hot seat was that he wasn't part of the ruling Labour/Ind group during the unlawful payments scandals, even though the collective responsibility of allowing the chief executive to get away with daylight robbery, remains. Jeff Edmunds, whilst not on the original Exec Board which bankrolled the chief executive, was elected just after, in May 2012 and was in charge of resources throughout the Wales Audit Office reports etc etc. Plaid were vocal in opposition, at the time, but that all changed in June 2015, (apart from this notable effort from Plaid backbenchers).
Labour's Kevin Madge is the final remnant of the executive board who wielded the fatal rubber stamp, and has now been nominated as vice chair of the council, and will be automatically elevated to Chair the year after. Only in Carmarthenshire eh?
As an aside, it is understood that the chief executive responded to any enquiries as to whether he was going to repay the unlawful monies by threatening councillors to keep their mouths shut or he'd make that earlier Exec Board pay it back out of their own pockets, in so many words. No wonder they all kept quiet... A pity really that they didn't stand up to him, the fact that he misled and manipulated the Exec Board into giving him a blank cheque would have given them an instant defence.
I am not aligned to any party, and will leave all the political intrigue to others, but as I see it we still have a largely benign set of councillors, fearful of the chief executive who continues to bully, threaten, flout the law and rip off the taxpayer.
The power lies with senior officers, and, as we have seen, the chief executive, aided by his cabal of disciples, holds the reins of whatever 'administration' is currently in the hot seat, so a strong opposition is essential in Carmarthenshire. With the City Deal, for example, looming on the horizon, even more decision making will be taken out of the hands of councillors. I have heard that the council have already borrowed unknown millions, and are paying interest on it, without any guarantees for the taxpayer, cross-council agreement, let alone a whisper of scrutiny.
In Carmarthenshire, questioning the integrity of the chief executive's vanity projects can be problematic, you are likely to be labelled a troublemaker, an obstacle to job creation and the forthcoming abundance of shared wealth, you could even be sued. He has his own agenda, and it should be challenged...jobs and abundant wealth for who exactly?
Has anyone, apart from me, flagged up whether his own business and property investment interests may conflict with the City Deal cash bonanza? Let alone the council's interests?
As I said in my previous post, the wisdom of allowing the chief executive anywhere near a piggy bank, let alone £1.3bn must be questioned.
Scrutiny is vital and, at times, far more effective on a public platform, at full council meetings, in the glare of the webcam, than at poorly minuted unrecorded spoon-fed scrutiny meetings. The farcical reaction to the Motion to introduce Epetitions a few weeks ago was a case in point. The Plaid leader demanded that the motion be withdrawn because the the decision to introduce them had already been made...despite the fact that this was FOUR years ago. The Motion should have been welcomed by the administration as a matter of democratic principle, not treated as a source of irritation from the opposition and voted down.
Next Wednesday is the council's AGM, a largely ceremonial affair but followed, after lunch by the Leader's Annual report, offering the usual opportunity for some b******t bingo, if nothing else. Following the appointment of Committee members and Chairs - none of which seem to be contested - we come to the annual tweak of the Constitution, with a minor amendment to ensure that councillors can claim extra expenses for additional 'approved duties'.
Yet again there is something missing from the annual Constitutional amendments and it's those shocking 'suspended' libel clauses which remain the elephants in the room. Unbelievable. Maybe next year eh?
Meanwhile, whether it's Labour, Plaid or the Independents 'running' the circus, it seems that some things never change. Back in March, whilst fans were shelling out for tickets and struggling to park, three Executive Board Members, Linda Evans, Hazel Evans, (both Plaid) and Mair Stephens (Ind) enjoyed a night out at Parc Y Scarlets for the Scarlets v La Rochelle match in the council's hospitality box, with designated parking. And who was paying for it all? Us of course, including you lot queuing outside. Mind you, Exec Board Member Jane Tremlett (Ind) went one better, whilst we were all shivering in February, she wangled a couple of days in Barcelona courtesy of a private telecare company...
Of greater significance however are the gifts, hospitality and fringe benefits enjoyed by the most senior officers, but, as I have discovered, you'll have to embark on lengthy battles through the Freedom of Information Act to get to the bottom of that.
|County Hall, Carmarthen.|
Carmarthenshire Council Executive Board will be rubber stamping the Agreement on Monday (update Monday; duly rubber stamped). It will then go to full council for the final nod of approval.
From what I can fathom out, here are a few points;
The Joint Committee will consist of the four council leaders and several co-opted representatives from the health boards and the universities. Only the four council leaders will have a vote. However, this is against a backdrop and input of the programme board, economic strategy board of business interests, finance and legal board, and other vested interests. As lip service to scrutiny, a councillor joint scrutiny board will be set up which will be run Carmarthenshire-style, ie surgically sanitised officer reports, engineered to avoid challenge and dissent.
Carmarthenshire Council will be the official 'Accountable Body', essentially then it's Mark James, aided and abetted by Linda Rees Jones and the section 151 finance officer. No, it's not April 1st. Mr James, as we know, is the lead chief executive for the whole Deal, the principal advisor to the Joint Committee, and will be known as the 'Accountable Officer'. What a joke. The other councils should be aware that the 'Accountable Officer' thinks nothing of breaching promises and was happy to renege on an undertaking to hand money over to the council, and pocketed it himself. Speaking from experience, I wouldn't believe a word he says. We wouldn't want the City Deal money ending up in the gutter would we?
I refer readers, and interested parties, to my previous post City Deal - a scandal in the making, and the wrong man for the job?
The private investment, the funding arrangements, and borrowing requirement for the four councils are still not clear but essentially, the 'Accountable Body' will be in control of the purse strings...what could possibly go wrong? A recent letter from the Welsh Minister shows that even the Welsh Government is confused as to Mr James' role in local government;
In Carmarthenshire the main project is the Wellness private-health-care hot-tub extravaganza, a Mark James vision he clearly plans to bequeath to the County when he finally moves on. If nothing else, it will be something to keep the auditors in gainful employment in years to come. The Yr Egin 'cultural hub' has already cost £16m of public money, how much of that has come from the council is not entirely clear.
The reality of the City Deal governance will be somewhat different than the tick-box legalese of the official agreement. One of the 'Principles' is for councils to be 'open and trusting in their dealings with each other'. We don't have to look very far back to see just how open and trusting Carmarthenshire was with Pembrokeshire over the speculative property grants, see 'Councils at war' leading to Pembs councillors concluding that Carmarthenshire was indeed a Sicilian cartel. These grants were administered by Carmarthenshire, like the City Deal, and the audits were shrouded in mystery, and mismanagement covered up.
The ambiguity identified by Neath Port Talbot over the past few months is still there with uncertainty around the use of capital receipts (as I read it, a council could sell any asset and use the money for a city deal project) and the divving up of funds, controlled by Carmarthenshire, is likely to set one council off against another before a once-in-a-generation brick has been laid. That's only when the government funding does start to trickle in, up until then each council, all making cuts to frontline services, will have to fund the projects themselves.
The running costs for the Deal will be met by the four councils to to the tune of £1m over five years, plus an additional 1.5% top-slice of the governments' contribution. This again will be controlled, and audited by Carmarthenshire...
As for Freedom of Information requests, once again it is County Hall in overall control, a council far more concerned with reputation than truth. My own request for an earlier draft of the JWA was flatly refused under legal privilege, which is a fine start. The Agreement mentions the requirement for a 'robust system' for declarations of conflicts of interest, yet the 'Accountable Officer' is an officer who chose not to declare his own property and business empire to his employers.
The complex governance structure for the City Deal resembles a bloated quango, filled with conflicting interests and cosy arrangements (I bet the council hospitality boxes have been busy), set up to oversee a public/private scheme likely to benefit a few short term investors, and the egos, and wallets, of council chief executives, at massive public cost.
I will be watching.
Full council met last Wednesday for their monthly meeting and quietly nodded through the legal framework for the City Deal. Bearing in mind that the council is already £400m in debt, no one questioned the unknown level of borrowing which will required, or if it was affordable, or whether there were contingency plans should the mysterious investors go bust, or pull out; or, well, anything much at all really.
As chief executive Mark James is leading the whole thing, with Emlyn Dole as the mouthpiece, rebellion, or anything more that a polite enquiry was always going to be unlikely and Mr James, along with the finance director, was given extended delegated power not to trouble the pretty heads of councillors with the finer details. To be honest I'd err on the side of caution when it comes to Mr James and documents... Linda Rees Jones, Carmarthenshire's Monitoring Officer and the chief executive's legal protector is also, we learn, the Monitoring Officer for the City Deal. You may recall that Carmarthenshire's internal legal advice was once famously, and accurately described as 'cavalier' and 'incompetent'. It most certainly still is.
What could possibly go wrong?
The Agreement now has to be approved by the other three councils; Swansea, Neath Port Talbot and Pembrokeshire. I hope their councillors take a slightly more 'risk based' approach to what is, essentially, a very expensive PFI scheme. After all, it was only two weeks ago that Emlyn Dole said that "services have now been cut to the bone, and now it is almost impossible to safeguard our frontline services".
Meanwhile, down at the Delta Lakes swamp, the planning application (by Arup, on behalf of the council) for the Mark James 'Wellness Village', part of the City Deal, is not going quite according to plan with NRW threatening to object to the application unless their concerns are addressed. These concerns include "requirements for flood risk, protected species, designated sites, drainage and air quality and conditions on geoscience, landscape and pollution prevention."Which covers just about everything.
The site, which is contaminated, partially on a flood plain and part of Llanelli's creaking sewage system, is directly adjacent to several designated sites; Carmarthen Bay and Estuaries SAC, Burry Inlet Special Protection Area (SPA) and RAMSAR, Burry Inlet and Loughor Estuary Special Site of Scientific Interest (SSSI), Pyllau Machynys SSSI and Pwll Lagoon SSSI.
Nothing is insurmountable of course, if you throw enough taxpayers' money at it, or, as in the case of the council's usual preferred option, deny all and carry on regardless.
Another project, Yr Egin 'cultural hub' in Carmarthen is now complete, it is not known how much has been paid out by the council or if there are any ongoing costs. We do know though that they paid £110,000 per acre for 19 acres of land for the Carmarthen West Road to enable the development, and that S4C, the flagship tenant is having trouble tempting its staff relocate to the wild west.
It's probably only a matter of time before the council starts renting office space...
Three and a half years ago Carmarthenshire councillors voted to go 'paperless' and have the reams of agendas, minutes and documents delivered electronically. iPads and software were duly purchased at considerable outlay and ongoing cost, and provided to all 74 councillors.
A report to the quaintly titled Democratic Committee last Monday, see here, revealed that, after three and a half years, only four councillors had actually gone 'paperless'. The rest, we assume, are either still working out how to turn their tablets on, given them to the grandkids or becoming Candy Crush experts. There had been 'hiccups', apparently.
I don't think there are many outfits, in this day and age, public or private, which continue to use small forests of timber, buckets of ink and eye-watering postage costs to impart information to their organisation. Apart from Carmarthenshire Council.
Carmarthen West Development
As mentioned above the Council have been shelling out a small fortune to progress the Carms West development of 1200 homes and the associated Carms West Link Road. One application, for around 250 homes, originally submitted in 2013, was, despite numerous objections including lack of demand, approved in February 2017 (See my post here which gives further background) but this was conditional on the completion of a S106 agreement. Presumably that has now been agreed as the decision notice has now been released.
The developer, Carmarthen Promotions Ltd is, oddly, based in Norfolk with a Lord, no less, as one of the Directors. The last published accounts indicate a loss of £252,000 in 2016/17. What I find odd is that, according to Companies House, as of the 6th June this year the council now have a legal charge over the company on the land. The company already has a bank loan of £1.6m secured on the land.
The council's legal charge is either connected to the S106 agreement or is security for a loan. If the council have given Carmarthen Promotions Ltd a loan it would be interesting to know why, how much, and on what terms. If it's part of the S106 then any return from the development is likely to take a very long time, if ever. Incidentally, in 2016 the same directors set up another company, Carmarthen Promotions (North) Ltd which is also running at a loss.
It's nearly that time of year again when the law allows you to take yourself down to County Hall and inspect the council's accounts and "all books, deeds, contracts, bills, vouchers and receipts relating thereto", well, those that have escaped the Presidential Shredder anyway... The inspection period runs from the 5th July and the 1st August.
Unlike English councils, the requirement to publish monthly spending details over £500 doesn't apply to Wales and this puts the interested public on the back foot. In Carmarthenshire we are left with trying to decipher generalised quarterly budget reports or going through tortuous freedom of information requests. With the growing profusion of arms-length companies and outsourced services even these avenues are becoming blocked.
So, if you have an area of interest, or even suspect there's been some creative accounting or an unlawful payment or two, the details of how to exercise your right to inspect can be found here.
The council's draft accounts have just been published and show an increase in the chief executive's salary from £170,424 to a whopping £191,699. The difference, around £20,000, is for Returning Officer fees for the Local Elections held in May 2017.
The figures do not include similar fees for the General Election which are paid direct by the government, not the council. Nor do they include other perks such as free use of publicly funded resources, facilities and staff time for his own private and personal use. (Nor does it include, of course, £165 a month from me..).
|Extract from Statement of Accounts 2017/18|
Labour have been quiet on the subject but a few years back Plaid Cymru, largely initiated by former AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas, called for the end of these additional election fees, unsuccessfully it turned out, but in January 2015 stated a clear Plaid policy on the subject;
"Plaid Cymru believes there should be no additional fees paid to Council senior officers for undertaking Returning Officer duties at election time. Swansea Council does not pay their chief executive a penny to undertake election duties, and we do not see why others should pocket up to tens of thousands of pounds in addition to their very well paid jobs."
I'm not sure what's happened to this policy in 'Plaid-run' Carmarthenshire, presumably Emlyn Dole hasn't found the courage to broach the subject with Mr James...though given the latter's preoccupation with his own wallet it's fairly clear how he would react to such an impertinent suggestion...
From the accounts we also learn that the Director of Communities and deputy chief executive Jake Morgan comes in at a not-very-close second on £156,000. This figure includes pension contributions of £20,000. Mr James has not been part of the pension scheme since the tax avoiding arrangement was exposed back in 2014. Neither the pension cash, nor the illegal libel indemnity have ever been repaid.
Other figures in the accounts show £2.8m paid out in exit packages which includes £687,738 for just six members of senior staff. Altogether, in the past two years, nearly a million pounds has been paid out in exit packages for eight members of the top brass. There are 21 senior officers in the £90,000 to £191,699 pay scale.
The total pay for the 74 councillors comes to £1.23m, plus expenses, which this year have jumped from £42,702 to £50,554.
A Labour motion to marginally reduce £123,000 per year salaries for two new director posts was defeated late last year by Plaid and the Independents, helped along, incidentally, by an entirely unwholesome and distasteful intervention by the chief executive... However, at Cardiff Council, in 2015, a Plaid Cymru motion to slash chief executive pay from £170k to £100k was defeated by Labour.
Meanwhile, Cllr Dole tells us that frontline services are now 'cut to the bone'.
With the current stalemate over excessive senior pay, what about tackling those Returning Officer fees? At £20,000 a throw, it's time to revisit the issue.
A sample test of leased properties was taken and the report "identified concerns in the management and administration of the Authority’s assets" and found that "agreements were not always up to date", neither were they reviewed or renewed on time" and furthermore "evidence was not always available to demonstrate that best value had been obtained for the authority"
Income isn't being collected promptly (if at all perhaps?) and records are not being properly maintained.
It is remarkable that that the council, with it's apparently shrinking budget; raising council tax, cutting services and shedding jobs, has failed to collect or properly manage and record the valuable income it gets from leased properties. Let's hope the Audit Committee will be given some honest detail for once, and can determine whether there have been and fraudulent or unlawful transactions and/or financial losses to the taxpayer.
As I have mentioned, Carmarthenshire Council and it's chief executive are currently the 'Accountable Body' for the City Deal, administering and managing the finances...they may want to get their own house in order first. Then again, deals enabling corporate entities and business associates to suck the lifeblood out of the taxpayer for years to come are right up Mr James' street...
Obtaining 'best value for the authority' does remind me of a certain deal with Scarlets' Regional Ltd where the chief executive, Mr James, certainly secured 'best value', unfortunately this was for Scarlets' Regional, not the authority...
The second report is from the Wales Audit Office which is also difficult to decipher. It appears to stem from two cases where "failings in people management had led to employee dismissals; losses in revenue or assets; and negative publicity for the Council.". One of the cases might well refer to the fiasco and cover-up at Pembrey Country Park (please search this blog for background, including here) though this is not stated in the report.
To 'review' what had happened, the council raided the Dictionary of Council Jargon and put several random words together, creating a "Corporate People Performance Management Review Working Group". The WAO have helpfully called it the 'review group'. The group met and discussed 'lessons learned' (of course) and, presumably, the management of people performance, whatever that might be.
As an aside it is worth remembering that there are a plethora of working groups, review groups, 'task and finish' groups, strategy and policy boards and other similarly titled bodies within the council who, by their nature, are not required to publish any agendas, minutes or decision notes, the most notorious being CRWG, set up to make the council 'more transparent'. This trend is growing and is a convenient way to subvert transparency and public engagement.
Anyway the WAO seemed pleased with the process of the 'CPPMRWG' review which made no less than ten recommendations. One of the recommendation was to review and update the guidance on declarations of interest, which is something we can all agree on...
However, despite the recommendations being formally proposed seven months ago, none of them had been implemented. The WAO concluded that this delay meant that the failings identified in the two review cases could be repeated.
You can read the report here
The latest version of the council's Social Media policy was up for approval at last Monday's Executive Board meeting. The policy is nothing out of the ordinary and is an updated version of those which have been in place for the last ten years or so.
The policy, which is specifically for employees, restates a certain clause which prohibits the use of the internet for personal use during working hours. No one will mind, presumably, if you pop in to check twitter for five minutes in your lunch break, but hours of trawling blogs to acquire 'evidence' for your own private grudge, for instance, is not allowed and could lead to serious disciplinary action.
This is exactly what happened in 2016 when the chief executive trawled, or, more likely, instructed staff to trawl, through this blog for hours to cobble together his failed complaint to the police. I happened to save the hit logs from a couple of these unusually lengthy visits.
There have been many more instances where clearly Mr James has saved himself the tiresome expense of instructing a solicitor to do this lengthy exercise and used council staff and computers instead, but as I had happened to have saved this particular evidence, I raised it with the Wales Audit Office. After while they replied and said that what he had done was acceptable, staff were allowed to do this.
You may think this was unusual, being able to pursue your private interests using publicly funded resources, bloody astonishing really, but more was to come. Further enquiries, via freedom of information revealed that this generous money-saving perk didn't actually extend to any one else other than Mr James.
In fact, in the past few years, no less than eight members of staff had been disciplined for using council computers to pursue their private interests.
Anyway, from unlawfully pocketing tens of thousands of public money, to breaching an undertaking to his employers, we know that Mr James prefers to spend other people's money, he said so himself....
|The 'Sterling' photoshoot|
There is something oddly familiar with all this.
In 2016, in secret session, the council's Executive Board entered a twelve month'exclusivity agreement' with Kent Neurosciences Ltd to 'develop' the Village.
By May last year the 12 month agreement had not been renewed and had been quietly dropped. The company subsequently dissolved itself in May 2018 with the last set of accounts showing a deficit of £128k. Professor Marc Clement (who is the Swansea University part of the deal, pictured above on the right) was a director until 2015. Other key directors included Mr Franz Dickmann, James Dickmann and Phyllis Holt-Dickmann, clinicians and business people.
Carmarthenshire blog, West Wales News Review took a good look at Kent Neurosciences in 2016 and there were some interesting connections, not least of all to a loss making private hospital in Kent and offshore tax havens in the British Virgin Islands. The hospital opened in 2014 but by 2016 required a £20m refinancing deal due to heavy losses. Most of the original directors had, by that time, moved on.
The 'official' reason why the 12 month Wellness Village deal with Kent Neurosciences Ltd was not renewed was that the project was SO BIG that a wider net had to be cast to incorporate a more diverse developer.
They also had to be able to come up with £127.5m to chip in to the project...
It was somewhat surprising therefore to see that Sterling Health appears to be Kent Neurosciences by another name and includes the same directors, ie the Dickmann clan. The 'Sterling' group of companies have yet to submit any detailed or useful accounts. However, as the council press release states, it "leads a prestigious consortium of global companies", whoever they may be, and searching Companies House certainly takes you down an endless rabbit warren of linked companies and directors, and the Kent connections.
A very recent addition to the list of Directors of both Sterling Holdings, and Sterling Operating is none other than our old friend, former council leader and loyal rubber stamper of the chief executive's unlawful behaviour, Meryl Gravell. Meryl has been loitering in the background ever since as Chair of the 'Arch' health board collaboration thing.
Clearly, as has been said before, the emphasis is on private health care, and a luxury health spa, in which the council, under the lead of Mr James, will be investing heavily.
All quite remarkable.
West Wales News Review ends its 2016 piece with another important point; "..could the Wellness Centre be a conduit for public money to flow through networks of companies into far-away entities registered in the British Virgin Islands and other tax havens?"
I would imagine that is entirely possible.
This blog is not suggesting, not for one moment, that there is anything wrong with the arrangement, merely suggesting that it might benefit from some democratic scrutiny... Unsurprisingly there has been none at all so far, and, as ever, Carmarthenshire's taxpayers deserve better.
For previous posts on the Wellness Village and Swansea Bay City Deal please use the search box on the right hand side of this blog
Mark James CeeBeeBies ™ is a man on a mission. Having blown public money at the Princess Royal Stadium and Parc Y Scarlets, he has now decided that his next wheeze will involve mugs from the private sector soaking up the pain of failure at Delta Lakes.
Although, and let's face it, given Marky-Mark's way with investing gargantuan sums of public dosh in pale pachyderms it would take a small miracle for the public not to end up paying out if the great swamp proves a money pit.
But let's all try to be positive.
Maryl Gravell has returned like a boomerang kebab on a Friday night in Llanelli town centre to lend the imprimatur of her own spotless reputation on doling out public money to the Llanelli Wellness Thingummy.
With Meryl the Peril back on board we cannot help but wait for the excitement to start. There will be exciting announcements of exciting news and exciting sums of money being spent on exciting things, some of which could turn out to be excitingly real, for a change.
You can imagine, readers, there was Emlyn, fast asleep one morning at Capel Ifan's own Rancho Grande when the phone rings. A half-awake council leader stumbles out of bed and wanders to the kitchen - stops to pour himself a cup of ambition - and answers the ringing phone.
It's Mark James.
Quickly Emlyn stands to attention and salutes, dinging himself with the receiver in the process.
"It's good news Leader"
For the sake of clarity, Cadno points out Mark James is the speaker of the last sentence.
A visibly relieved Emlyn genuflects.
"It's Meryl Gravell."
Emlyn puts on his sombre face and begins the touching eulogy he has prepared for such an occasssion.
"No Emlyn, Meryl's back. And this time it's Wellness."
An ashen Cllr Dole stares unbelievingly at the handset mouthing like a stranded trout. He feels one of his headaches starting; one of the ones that end with him sitting in the corner of the kitchen with a cup of cocoa, armed with a sand wedge to repel boarders and keep the voices at bay.
"Meryl!?" He eventually croaks into the handset. Through the earpiece, he can hear Mark James whistling 'Happy Talk' from South Pacific.
"Yes, Emlyn. Meryl. Please try to keep up. She's a director of the company we're entering into a partnership with to build the Wellness Centre, Life Sciences Centre, Wellness Village, Wellness Resort Hotel, Wellness Golf Course, and Wellness Sheltered Housing complex for discrete and well-off gentlefolk who don't want to end up living in a cardboard box on Station Road in their declining years."
Attempting vainly to recover his equilibrium, the Council Leader murmurs the words 'Leisure Centre'.
The narked voice at the other end of the line snaps back, "Well if we must, Emlyn. But we're talking about big money here. Hundreds of millions pumped into Delta Lakes. I'm sure we can manage to squeeze in a ping pong table and paddling pool to keep the locals on side. After all, they'll need something to do in their lunchbreaks after a hard morning on minimum wage with a dustpan and brush or serving coffees in the Wellness Coffee Shop attached to the Wellness Conference Centre."
"But Meryl?!" A faint plaintive note enters Cllr Dole's voice.
"Look she was at a loose end having had the Shitty Deal gig go south when Cardiff Bay decided that she and the other mugs who fronted the deal were disposable. But look on the bright side, with Meryl on board everyone will be excited. I'm excited, Meryl's excited, it'll stop you having to bear the burden of the blame if it all goes tits up, too"
Emlyn cannot help himself; "Blame? Tits?"
"Listen Emlyn, this is my last big chance to enter the annals of public finance and local government as the man who delivered three whopping disasters without getting sacked.
I've been dreaming of completing the hat-trick in order to cement my position as the man to whom the Welsh Government will be able to turn to head the Assembly Commission when the time is right. I can't risk a success. It'll go against the best traditions of local government in Wales and could ruin my legacy. It's notoriety that counts, not competence. A word in the right ear was all it took and Fanny's your aunt, Meryl is back."
"I don't understand. Are we planning to fail?" A desperate Emlyn clutches to the prospect of disaster like it was a life preserver.
"This is Carmarthenshire, Emlyn!"
The exasperated tone with which the Council Leader is familiar is in CeeBeeBies' voice; "For goodness' sake, if we succeed every other county council will think it can succeed. We can't let down Cardiff Bay by allowing that. Remember what the City Deal is for; it's to ensure that when ill-costed, poorly thought out projects fail, the Welsh Government can pass the buck. They pass the buck to us, we pass the buck to Meryl. It's a win for us no matter what happens."
"Winning?" A faint note of hope enters Emlyn dole's voice and he sits down on a kitchen stool by the breakfast bar to steady himself.
"Yes, winning Emlyn. Everyone's a winner. Well, apart from Llanelli of course. They'll be left with a rotting building site around a leisure centre slowly sinking into the water."
Emlyn brightens up; "You mean Llanelli loses?"
A hollow chuckle comes down the other end of the line; "Oh yes Emlyn. That'll teach the ungrateful bastards."
There's a click and a whirr, the audience is over. Emlyn's world begins to spin with the possibilities. He begins to feel dizzy. Everything goes black.
He wakes up to the sound of ringing. I's the phone in the kitchen.
A half-awake council leader stumbles out of bed and answers it.
It's Mark James.
"It's Meryl Gravell, Leader."
Emlyn puts on his sombre face and begins the touching eulogy he has prepared for such an occasion.
"No, Emlyn. Meryl's back. Back again."
Emlyn swallows and feels rising dread.
It all seems so familiar...is there no end to this nightmare?
He looks around for his sand wedge. The voices are coming again....
Please search this blog for background, including here, here, and previous post here.
I understand that a meeting of the council's Constitutional Review Working Group (CRWG) was held earlier today. On the agenda was an Item on those infamous and unlawful libel indemnity clauses in the council's constitution.
The matter had been raised, I understand, by the leader of the Labour group Rob James who was pushing for some sort of decision as to what the administration intended to do, it was his express intention for them to be removed completely, rather than remain as 'suspended' for yet another four years.
It seems that the Plaid and Independent majority on the group, including Emlyn Dole, out-manoeuvred the three Labour members and resolved to write to the Wales Audit Office to ask if they could, legally, reinstate the clauses, on the basis that they consider them to be lawful.
If this is indeed the case, and I have asked Plaid politicians Jonathan Edwards MP and Adam Price AM to confirm Plaid's stance, then it is astonishing.
In 2014 the same Plaid councillors voted to accept the Wales Audit Office libel indemnity report which declared that it was unlawful for officers to be publicly funded to bring defamation claims, and, in fact, legislation expressly prohibited it anyway. At that time it was the Labour and Independents who voted just to 'note' the report and suspend the clauses.
All to save the skin of Mark James and Legal Linda who have refused to accept the findings.
They have claimed that the provision is lawful under case law and the vague powers under the Local Government Act of 1972.
Neither the case law, which in fact does not support such action, nor the LGA 1972 override the express prohibition in section 6(3) of the Indemnities Order 2006.
The about-turn of Plaid 'in-power', particularly Emlyn Dole is shocking and prior to today he has informed me that he now considers the clauses to be lawful. Anyone would think he owed his position to the, erm, generosity of Mark James...
I have written many times about these clauses and the sinister, chilling effect that the provision has on critics and the press alike. I will not repeat it all again here. A senior officer can still sue of course, like anyone else, but must use their own money, apart from in Carmarthenshire.
I find it remarkable that Plaid Cymru are apparently considering such an illiberal, unlawful and anti-democratic step.
If they are seriously going to try and do this then of course there is a lengthy process to follow. The response from the Wales Audit Office will eventually turn up on the agenda of a CRWG meeting, a recommendation will then be made which will, in turn, go to full council. It will run and run.
CRWG could have voted today to remove them completely and recommended this to the next meeting of full council.
It seems they did the exact opposite.
Carmarthenshire Council remains the only council in the UK to have this notorious provision in its constitution, it should be an embarrassment to them all. The failure to remove the clauses, and now, apparently, to seek reinstatement, shows the length they will go to protect the illegal actions of the chief executive and Monitoring Officer.
|Nick Bennett, Public Service Ombudsman for Wales|
In essence, it all related to the support Cllr Caiach has shown to me over the past couple of years, particularly when Mr James was trying to force sale of my home. You may recall a similar reaction to others who tried to intervene and of course his complaints to the police.
The Ombudsman concluded that Cllr Caiach was entitled to do, and say, what she did, it was political comment from an opposition councillor concerning the actions of the council and its chief executive. There was no breach found, and none of it was considered by the Ombudsman to be serious. There was one minor issue that the Ombudsman thought Cllr Caiach should reflect on, but, again, no further action was required.
The Ombudsman applied Article 10 of the Human Rights Act, and the Calver judgement in respect of the extra protection afforded to political expression and concluded that in Cllr Caiach's case freedom of expression included the right of political expression through public protest, she was also perfectly entitled to criticise council policy and show support for a cause or individual.
He added that he expected a chief executive to have a 'thicker-skin' when under general criticism.
|Cllr Sian Caiach, currently Chair of Llanelli Rural Council|
My personal view
There are a few points arising from this investigation which are worth making.
Mark James became personally embittered and outraged when Cllr Caiach acted as a witness for me, against him and the council, at the libel trial in 2013. It later transpired that he had tracked her emails.
Cllr Caiach, as followers of this blog will know, continued to question the legality of the libel indemnity and to criticise the council's pursuit of costs and Mr James' pursuit of damages.
However, she did not challenge the legal outcome of the trial, just the moral compass of Carmarthenshire Council.
Whether or not Mr James has a personal vendetta against Cllr Caiach is not known, but, as with me,
the volume of 'evidence' and the detailed complaints also give rise to another concern. It appears that Mr James has either spent an awful lot of time tracking quotes and comments from blogs, including this blog, and Cneifiwr's, scrutinizing emails, memorising chunks from Tugenhat's judgement, and god knows what else, or he instructed other council staff to do this laborious and repeated task.
Not once did he discuss his complaints with Cllr Caiach before going to the Ombudsman.
Incidentally, my police custody record from the 2011 #daftarrest incident was included in the 'evidence', I can't think of any reason why this was sent to the Ombudsman, its inclusion was completely irrelevant.
It seems to me that, yet again, Mr James' personal mission has not only cost the council an arm and a leg in staff time and resources but clearly an eighteen month Ombudsman investigation, including the taking of statements, interviewing witnesses, etc doesn't come cheap. This money would have better spent addressing concerns of dissatisfied hospital patients rather than the inflated ego of Mr James.
Mr James is the Head of Paid Service and his remit does not include assembling dossiers, by whatever means, on backbench councillors. Or bloggers or members of the public for that matter. It begs the question as to whether he has a similar obsession with the musings, and the data, of any other councillors....
Interestingly, this is not the first Ombudsman to suggest that Mr James grows a thicker skin. He has previous. Back in 2012 he made another set of complaints against Cllr Caiach to the former Ombudsman, Peter Tyndall, and he, Mr Tyndall, threw them all out.
Maybe Mr James should be registered somewhere as a vexatious complainant.
Come to think of it, Mr James hasn't had much success elsewhere either, his complaints to the police against me were thrown out by the CPS, and the judge who has dealt with the various civil enforcement proceedings was, shall we say, surprised at some of Mr James' actions, he was also as fair to me as he could be under the constraints of the circumstances.
As for the Code of Conduct, there's another one for Officers. As I have mentioned before, Mr James has taken payments which were deemed unlawful, he has used council resources and staff for his own purposes and breached an undertaking to his employers to pay the damages to the council. And more.
I think that this time, the Ombudsman got it pretty much right, although personally I wonder if he's been investigating entirely the wrong person.
|Mr James doorstepped by reporters during the pension and libel indemnity scandals, 2014|
Following the CRWG meeting held at the end of July I asked Jonathan Edwards MP and Adam Price AM to clarify Plaid's stance on the subject. Their reply, which I received on Monday is reproduced below, in full;
EDWARDS, Jonathan <firstname.lastname@example.org>
6 Aug 9:53AM
Dear Mrs Thompson,
Many thanks for your e-mails.
I’ve taken a bit of time to try and establish what has happened these past few days. I respond to you today on both my and my constituency colleague, Adam Price’s behalf.
I’m afraid the information I have is based on informal discussions, rather than anything which has been published.
As I understand it:
· There was a suggestion by the Labour group leader at a recent meeting of the council’s CRWG meeting to remove the particular clause from the constitution.
· The response from a Plaid Councillor was that there remains a grey area as to whether the council is or isn’t allowed to provide an indemnity following recent proceedings relating to Caerphilly Council.
· The Plaid Councillor proposed writing to the Wales Audit Office for clarity on the matter.
· This proposal was supported by the Labour group leader.
You’ll appreciate that my understanding is somewhat different to the noises which have been made in the press since the meeting!
As far as Adam and I are concerned, this is not a matter which has been discussed within the party and we would not personally support the re-introduction of the clause. Furthermore, we don’t think there is any appetite whatsoever in the Plaid Council Group to re-introduce such a clause.
We maintain the position that it is right and proper for a public authority to indemnify officials for proceedings brought against them in the course of their duties, but not the ability to initiate proceedings or for counter-claims.
If I get any more information I’ll be sure to get in touch, but as far as I’m concerned there are no attempts to re-instate the clause.
I hope that’s useful for now.
This week's Carmarthen Journal also features an article on the subject which does not yet seem to be online, so here it is;
First of all I'd like to say that I believe Mr Edwards and Mr Price are sincere when they say they would not personally support the reintroduction of the clause. Having read their remarks over the past few years, including in correspondence I can't imagine they would think this was a good idea, to say the least.
Unfortunately, they do not run the council, and neither, for that matter, does Emlyn Dole, or his Independent colleagues.
We know who does.
I would imagine that when the Motion to remove the clauses landed on the chief executive's desk for inclusion on the CRWG agenda there was a rapid flurry of activity.
As we know, a report was written to 'advise' CRWG. That report has not been published and, according to the Journal article the whole Item was 'exempt' and confidential. There is no reason for this at all.
I am fully aware of the historic, and flawed arguments put forward by Mr James that the clauses are, in his opinion, lawful, but there also appears to have been some scratching around to include unspecified proceedings relating to Caerphilly Council. I am not currently aware of such proceedings directly related to this issue.
However, instead of simply agreeing to remove the offending and unlawful clauses, a counter-motion to reinstate was, it seems, put forward. Eventually, a vote was taken whether or not to write to the Wales Audit Office, presumably for legal clarity. I understand that the Labour leader abstained another Labour councillor voted against.
I have asked Linda Rees Jones for a copy of that letter.
As the quote from the Wales Audit Office states, their position remains unchanged.
Mr James, has, for the past four years railed against the findings of the then Appointed Auditor Anthony Barrett and I imagine his correspondence with the auditor was as arrogant and as irritatingly righteous as his correspondence with me. In 2016 he used Mr Dole to question the Wales Audit Office as to whether Mr Barrett was suitably qualified to make his findings. Mr James was sent off with a flea in his ear.
Even in his complaint to the Ombudsman concerning Sian Caiach he challenged, at considerable rambling length, the findings of Mr Barrett.
If the council were run by councillors I have little doubt that these clauses would have been quietly removed. But, as I said back in 2015, our dynamic duo, Mark and Linda, are in something of a dilemma, if they remove the clause completely, then Mrs Thompson would have won a small but significant victory - they would be conceding that it should never have been there in the first place. They would also be agreeing with the Wales Audit Office. Their positions would be untenable.
Hence the continuing prevarication, and undue, and unlawful, influence on councillors.
If they leave it in the book, in its 'withdrawn' state, never to be used, then it looks ridiculous and serves no purpose within the constitution; a permanent reminder of professional incompetence, arrogance and unlawful behaviour.
As I have said, regardless of political nuance or pointing the finger of blame, the clauses remain unique to Carmarthenshire, a memorial to local government idiocy, and in particular, the self-centred idiocy and unbelievable arrogance of Mark James.
Perhaps he's considering raiding the council coffers again, and suing someone...
Please search this blog for further background, of which there is an abundant supply.
With the Swansea Bay City Deal Joint Committee meeting for the first time today (Friday) the Llanelli Herald has marked the occasion, perhaps, with a steely look at the state of play of the Wellness Shed planned for the Delta Lakes swamp. More precisely it looks at the company appointed by the council as their 'private partners', Sterling Health.
Much of the information was covered on this blog (with several interesting comments) last month - see Wellness Village 'private partners' - something oddly familiar? - but, given that our Mr James is due to be made King of the City Deal (lead CEO, Principle Adviser, Chair of the Project Board and yes, really, the 'Accountable Officer') it's worth taking another look.
Following a sprinkling of council press statements during the week the Herald reports that no less than two management consultancies have been appointed by the council, Faithful & Gould and Medparc Ltd.
F & G are clearly a massive multinational company with a track record of success, (apart from a no-blame hiccup over the abandoned InterCity West Coast franchise competition), in project management.
Medparc, as I mentioned in my last post, has no such track record, has minor assets and was dormant until 2016. The connection however is the director of Medparc, James Dickmann. Mr Dickmann, along with Franz and Phyllis Dickmann, and bizarrely Meryl Gravell form Sterling Health Security Holdings Ltd, the council's 'private partners', recording, as I said, a £137K deficit last year and zero income.
Another Dickmann enterprise is the 'Little Learners' Academy' which, according to Sterling's website, are planning to provide 'Wellness' creche facilities. As this company was only formed in August 2017 there are no accounts nor track record.
Sterling, and it's directors, grew out of Kent Neurosciences (KNS), the council's original development partners, when it dissolved earlier this year with a deficit of £128k. KNS had developed a private hospital in Maidstone, Kent until insolvency beckoned and a bail out was required.
The Herald continues;
"That hospital, built in Maidstone, is the Kent Institute of Medicine and Surgery and ultimate control of the entities concerned in it is based in the British Virgin Islands – no doubt ‘the city connections’ the Council is so proud to trumpet. And those ‘city connections’ all link to a string of other companies similarly vested in overseas tax havens.
No allegation is made regarding the tax status or practices of those companies.
Although it is something which, no doubt, the Council’s crack legal and compliance team took into consideration when choosing its partners."
Presumably the council's 'due diligence' process will have noted the track record of the Kent hospital and the involvement of the Dickmann clan who left before the bailout by investors began. It is on public record that as at April 2017 the three year old hospital's net liabilities were £33.5m. Projected success had not materialised and the crisis was a result of an 'overly optimistic' business plan in the first place.
The Herald concludes; "With two key partners’ heady track record of delivery and links to shady offshore tax havens, there is little doubt that the Wellness Village – when built - will be everything people expect it to be and more."
All this should be comfortably familiar to Mr James and perhaps why the "robust procurement exercise", Carmarthenshire style, always leaves more questions than answers. In his previous incarnation as chief executive, Mr James had been the originator of the Princess Royal stadium in Boston and by the time the auditors had been called in to figure out why the projected financial success story was nowhere to be found, he had moved on to build another taxpayer draining stadium in Carmarthenshire.
So, let's hope that the new term at County Hall sees our councillors asking some very pertinent questions, such as, for example, just what exactly is the criteria required for a company to become 'development partners', is a track record of financial success actually necessary? And how many millions will the council have to borrow, and just who exactly is going to benefit from the Wellness Village? Who knows, with Mr James' private property investment partners and his management empire in Cardiff, it might just be him...
More to the point, some searching questions right now would be better than an external forensic audit investigation further down the line, when everyone involved at the outset has long since buggered off.
As for the Council, the Herald's cutting columnist Cadno makes a few observations and suggests a few questions in this week's paper, well worth a read;
Here's an extract of a previous Cadno piece (apparently Boris the Brexit Fox stood in for Cadno this time) which dealt with the various impending political leadership elections here in Wales. It suggests, in fact, that Mr James already has all the fine accoutrements we would expect from an all-powerful Welsh Leader...;
"So we must rally to the flag of strong and decisive leadership and intolerance of rebellious voices so as to mould the Welsh nation anew.
The flag of Mark James.
Nobody in their right mind could claim that sinking millions of pounds on easy terms into a succession of failed projects was not adequate preparation for taking over the whole country.
Equally, nobody could say – at least not twice, unless it’s the Ombudsman – that the glorious leader is a vindictive petty bureaucrat who ought to grow a thicker skin if he’s going to interfere in the political process and eavesdrop on councillor’s emails.
Who else but Mark James could fulfil the onerous role of being involved in a property management company, chief executive of a County Council, lead chief executive for the City Deal, and all-seeing eye at the centre of Mordor?
One more finger in another pie and the set would be complete.
It is for that reason, not to mention Mark James’ ability to perform in the traditions of Welsh local government (mot ‘si scalpere dorsum, et digitis tuis’) that marks him out as a man apart. The sort of man who should be leading Wales instead of the current band of lollygagging ne’er do wells who populate Cardiff Bay.
Imagine for a moment, my friends, the sort of country we would have under the benign and ever-watchful Great Flaming Eye that is Mark James.
There would a bowling alley on every corner, a Wellness Centre in every village, and a bloody big stadium to host the Olympic Games – possibly at Cross Hands East.
It’s a compelling vision, isn’t it my friends. The sort of firm leadership for which Wales is crying out. And seated at his right hand will be Meryl Gravell and her representative on earth Emlyn Dole.
To those of you voting in various leadership elections this summer, the choice is clear. Write in Mark Vincent James’ name on your ballot papers.
Let him do for Wales what he has done for Carmarthenshire.
And then pull the chain."
Carmarthenshire Council makes no less than three appearances in the latest Ombudsman's quarterly casebook with all the findings dealt with under the 'Early Resolution' scheme.
This scheme avoids the need for a protracted investigation and is used where the Ombudsman and the council can agree to a quick turnaround for things to be put right. In an ideal world, a satisfactory and quick result is of course preferable for the complainant, cheaper for the Ombudsman and less in the way of 'reputational damage' for the council.
With these three findings against the council unlikely to appear any time soon on the corporate website it's worth noting that, aside from the specific failings, the theme across all three is the council's reluctance and inability to deal properly with complaints, or even recognise and log them as such. It presents a snapshot of a wider problem; as many of us who have tried to bring the council to account will know;
Carmarthenshire County Council – Children in care/ taken into care/ ‘at risk’ register/ child abuse/ custody of children
Case Number: 201706555 – Report issued in April 2018
Ms A complained about the Social Services Team at Carmarthenshire County Council (“the Council”) and, in particular, a lack of care towards her daughter’s safety when using social media. Ms A also raised concerns over a lack of communication and the fact that she had not received a formal response to her concerns.
The Ombudsman found that although Ms A has not been through the Council’s complaint procedure, the Council should have noted her dissatisfaction from her correspondence and dealt with Ms A’s concerns as a formal complaint.
The Council agreed to undertake the following actions, in settlement of the complaint:
a) Within 28 days from the date of the Ombudsman’s decision, arrange a meeting between Ms A, her daughter and the Social Services Team.
b) Within one month from the date of the meeting, issue a Stage 1 written response to the complaint.
Carmarthenshire County Council – Special Educational Needs (SEN)
Case Number: 201706608 – Report issued in April 2018
Ms X complained that Carmarthenshire County Council (“the Council”) had continuously failed to provide a Physics tutor for her 15-year-old daughter. Her concerns were as a result of her daughter’s school mishandling her education which led to a breakdown and several suicide attempts. Ms X’s daughter has been diagnosed as having Atypical Autism.
Although the Council had taken steps to resolve this complaint, since the Ombudsman’s involvement, it had failed to formally acknowledge and deal with the complaint under its complaints procedure despite Ms X clearly indicating that she was raising a formal complaint. The Council agreed to write to Ms X with its apologies.
Carmarthenshire County Council – Social care assessment
Case number: 201700171 – Report issued in June 2018
Mr A’s complained about Carmarthenshire County Council’s (“the Council”) response to his Stage 2 complaint investigation. This included the Council not detailing the measures it had put in place to address the identified failings around assessments, statutory and non-statutory services and eligibility.
The Council acknowledged shortcomings in its complaint handling and agreed to take the following actions:
a) apologise to Mr A for the failings identified and pay him the sum of £250 for the time and trouble caused to him in pursing his complaint.
b) revise its Complaint Process flowchart so it meets the requirement of the Welsh Government’s guidance on complaint handling and representations by local authority social services (2014).
c) provide evidence of the training programme it has drawn up in relation to complaint handling.
d) provide an explanation of the Eligibility Criteria for the Transition Team and update the details displayed on its website accordingly.
e) provide the Ombudsman with copies of the revised policies, accompanied by an action plan, which should include appropriate timescales for ensuring implementation and monitoring of compliance.
An added bonus for County Hall is their possibly erroneous assumption that the shorter Early Resolution scheme must leave the Ombudsman with plenty of cash and time on his hands with which to spend sifting through the self-obsessed, deranged ramblings of our chief executive for 18 months. But as we already know, Mr James clearly considers himself a far more important and deserving recipient of scarce public resources than vulnerable children, worried mothers and their irritating complaints...
Tax avoidance and the CBE
Interesting news out today that the Honours system takes a dim view of nominees involved in tax avoidance schemes and takes advice from HMRC.
You may recall that around the same time as chief executive Mark James was given a CBE he was also involved in a tax avoidance scheme.
For two years he took a secret pay rise (totalling nearly £30k) in lieu of his pension contribution for the purpose of avoiding tax, a matter deemed unlawful by the Wales Audit Office in their 2014 Public Interest Report (there were two reports, the other being the unlawful libel indemnity).
Mr James' honour from Private Eye was richly deserved, and his own concept of honour, dignity and integrity has been called into question before.
As for the CBE, the Honours committee states; "poor tax behaviour is not consistent with the award of an honour".
As I am a regular user of the Freedom of Information Act, Carmarthenshire-style, their stats were interesting. Out of 1235 requests made from January to December 2017 only 50%, were answered in full, ie full disclosure of the information requested. A grim statistic. Out of the remaining 50%, 317 were refused and 193 partly refused.
In 2016 the full disclosure figure was 58% so there's been a decline of 8%.
This puts Carmarthenshire towards the bottom of the public body barrel. The Welsh Government were worse with only 46% full disclosures. At the top of the tree was Gwynedd council with 95% full disclosures out of 1002, a comparable number of requests as were made to Carmarthenshire.
According to to the stats, Carmarthenshire has improved it's response rate to reply within the 20 day limit from 84% in 2016 to 97% in 2017. My personal experience of delayed responses would put this figure at around 10%, but perhaps that's just because it's me...
One surprisingly quick Carmarthenshire response was to a request (not one of mine) for expenditure details for the month of June 2018. Over recent years I've suggested that Welsh councils should follow the legal requirement, now statutory in England, to publish monthly expenditure, but Carmarthenshire have consistently refused to do so.
This particular request, which was responded to in full in just three days, showed that publishing these details every month might not be such a problem after all...
The latest Caebrwyn FOI farce concerns my request for the officer's report to the Constitutional Review Working Group meeting held on the 27th July. The report related to the agenda item on the unlawful and notorious libel clause, recent posts, here and here explain the details, and the possibility that reinstatement of the clause is being sought.
I originally asked Monitoring Officer Linda Rees Jones for a copy of the report. She eventually replied to say that she had passed on my request to FOI as I was asking her to "divulge information about what might or might not have been discussed at a private meeting of councillors".
It is interesting that CRWG has now been classified as a 'private meeting of councillors'... I understand that calls are being made for CRWG, which is overseen by Mark James and Ms Rees Jones to become a properly constituted committee.
The predictable FOI response arrived on Monday stating that my request had been refused under the legal privilege exemption. There are two parts to this exemption; litigation privilege and advice privilege, the request was refused under the latter as no actual litigation was (or is) being contemplated. Which is something I suppose.
The basic principle that correspondence between lawyer and client is protected from disclosure is, of course, well established in law. Where it becomes something of a grey area is when the exemption is applied to reports written by council legal officers for councillors, committees or, in this case, a 'working group'.
The danger in a democratic society is that as a matter of convenience, the net can be arbitrarily widened to include anything written by a solicitor, including a council solicitor, about anything that elected members are discussing or deciding upon.
The exemption is also subject to a public interest test and in this case the council FOI officer, no doubt under the direct instruction of Mark James and Ms Rees Jones, decided that the public interest for transparency did not outweigh the need for secrecy.
Legal privilege is also a difficult one to appeal as there is such a long-standing presumption against disclosure. As the council well know.
|Carms Council FOI Exemptions Department.|
In this case I believe that the document is being wrongfully withheld as a means to avoid public discussion on what is essentially a matter of significant public interest. The status of the clauses, ie the reinstatement, removal or the status quo (remain 'suspended') of the provision to use public money to fund officers' defamation claims has significant implications for the public and the press, financially and ethically, not just here in Carmarthenshire but across the UK.
The fact that this is sensitive and embarrassing subject matter for the chief executive and the monitoring officer, whose illegal actions sparked this long running scandal in the first place, should have nothing to do with a FOI response; but this is Carmarthenshire, with it's toxic culture of secrecy.
As I mention in my request for a review below, advice relating to the same issue was published in 2014, but this was when their backs were against the wall, so to speak. It does raise the question though of whether they have already waived their claim to legal privilege, or whether, as I have also mentioned in my email, it is engaged at all...
All in all I fail to understand why the report hasn't just simply been released. It is farcical.
The letter to the WAO, which I also requested, is 'not held by the council' which, in plain speaking, means it probably hasn't been written yet. Maybe they're getting legal advice...
On a wider point, it's about time that FOI legislation was widened to include commercial entities who carry out public services, from council owned 'arms-length companies, to housing associations and even City Deal partners, for example. If they're spending public money then they should be open to a degree of scrutiny.
Anyway, I am digressing, here's the refusal notice (3rd September), with my request for a review (5th September) below;
Dear Mrs Thompson,
I refer to your request for information, which was received on 3rd August, 2018 and has been dealt with under the Freedom of Information Act 2000.
The specific information you requested was as follows:
“1. I understand that at the CRWG meeting held last Friday (27th July) it was resolved to write to the Wales Audit Office concerning the unlawful libel indemnity clauses. I would be grateful for a copy of this letter or confirmation of its intended purpose if has not yet been composed.”
“2. … the officer's report which accompanied the item on the unlawful libel indemnity clauses which might or might not have been discussed at the 'private' CRWG meeting.”
In response to the first part of your request, the Council does not hold this information.
With regard to the second part of your request, this information is held by the Council.
However, it is evident that the report in question is comprised of advice provided by a legal professional to the CRWG on this particular matter.
It is therefore a form of communication between a legal professional and a client.
As we have advised you previously, a decision by the Information Tribunal, in Bellamy v the Information Commissioner and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (EA/2005/0023, 4th April, 2006), provided a clear definition of legal professional privilege:
“a set of rules or principles which are designed to protect the confidentiality of legal or legally related communications and exchanges between the client and his, her or its lawyers, as well as exchanges which contain or refer to legal advice which might be imparted to the client, and even exchanges between the clients and [third] parties if such communications or exchanges come into being for the purposes of preparing for litigation.”
The Bellamy decision also defined two types of privilege, namely litigation and advice privilege. I believe in this case that the report is subject to advice privilege, which applies where no litigation is in progress or being contemplated. This would include confidential communications between the legal professional and the client, for the main purpose of seeking or giving legal advice. A report which in which a lawyer provides advice is by definition, legal advice.
Under Section 42 of the Act, a public authority may refuse to provide information where a claim to legal professional privilege could be maintained. In view of the above, I believe this exemption is therefore engaged.
However, the Section 42 exemption is qualified and subject to a public interest test. In doing so, I must make a distinction between what is genuinely in the public interest and what may merely be of interest to a member of members of the public.
I accept that there are public interest factors which favour disclosure in this case, namely transparency and furthering public knowledge in relation to a matter which has been subject to some publicity in the past.
However, there is an inherent public interest in maintaining this exemption, which will always be strong due to the importance of the principle behind legal professional privilege, which is to protect the privacy of communications between client and lawyer to ensure access to full and frank legal advice, which in turn is fundamental to the administration of justice.
I am not persuaded on this occasion that this is outweighed by the factors favouring disclosure set out above. Accordingly, I believe the exemption should be maintained and the information withheld from disclosure.
As I am refusing to provide the requested information, please therefore consider this email to be a formal notice of refusal under Section 17 of the Act.
Cllr Rob James, leader of the Labour opposition group on Carmarthenshire Council gives his views recent developments over the unlawful libel indemnity clause. Refreshingly clear and straight to the point, it's worth a watch.
I have made my views on the matter crystal clear and my efforts to obtain documents from the recent 'working group' meeting can be read here. There's plenty of background on this blog, including the CRWG meeting here.
(Just to be clear, the opinions expressed below, and on this blog are mine alone, not views expressed by Cllr Rob James)
I don't need to elaborate, I've done so many times but I will say, yet again that this clause is unlawful, or, in the real world, illegal. Despite the endless denials and desperate attempts to discredit the Auditor, and anyone else, Mark James knows it too. Since the Auditor's findings in 2014 he, and head of law Ms Rees-Jones have deliberately and continually misrepresented the legal position and misled councillors, and used precious public resources to do so.
What is worse, perhaps, is that our pious church-going chief executive 'persuaded' Plaid council leader Rev Dole to betray his own conscience, u-turn, and sing from the same, profoundly un-Christian-like hymn sheet.
It is very much in Mark James' interest, and it is his intention, to try and reinstate the clause or at least overturn the label 'unlawful'. Who knows, perhaps he's hoping for a knighthood... He has never repaid the unlawful cash and, without a pang of conscience, breached the undertaking to hand over the damages back to the council.
Whatever happens this issue will not go away, despite the administration's best attempts to muddy the waters, kick it into the long grass, or any similar metaphor.
Whatever your views on the libel case itself, it is extremely important that the clause is completely removed.
As for accountability, it is my honestly held opinion that Mr James and Ms Rees-Jones should both have been sacked over this fiasco four years ago. There's still time.
Cllr Rob James, Labour opposition leader who is pushing for the removal of the clause, claims that his group are now barred from all sensitive information related to decisions made by the Plaid/Indie coalition, scrutiny of spending will be limited. I have heard similar claims and, furthermore, council leader Emlyn Dole confirms it in a statement to the Herald saying that it was now questionable whether confidential information could be trusted to the Labour leader.
This restriction came about following my blog post here which revealed the fact that the libel indemnity clause had been discussed at the CRWG meeting. No graphic details were published, there were no personal or commercially sensitive material, nor did anyone imagine that the whole business was top secret.
CRWG, you may recall, was set up to improve governance and make the council more transparent, not, as it now appears, as a secret conduit for the chief executive to challenge the qualifications of the Auditor. Something he has tried before.
Clearly the auditor's findings are still keeping Mr James awake at night. Only last year, in his complaint to the Ombudsman against Sian Caiach he rambled on at length about his unlawful indemnity, not that it was unlawful of course. He attacked, yet again, the then Appointed Auditor, Anthony Barrett claiming, in so many words, that his findings were based on little more than shifting sands and a passing whim.
As we know, the WAO have not changed their view and their finding has never been overturned in court.
Cllr Dole's previous enthusiasm to fully accept the Auditors findings and remove the clause in 2014, and his 'pledge' to promote 'a new mindset as we seek to ensure full openness and transparency' in May 2015, all mysteriously evaporated when he was given the key to the Presidential Toilet. It must all be a bit embarrassing, poor man...
He probably hopes that the whole sordid business will find the long grass, or those lumpy carpets in Mark James' Presidential Suite, and as yet, no letter has been written to the WAO, as resolved at the CRWG meeting.
And as for the CRWG item on libel indemnities being 'confidential', it's completely ridiculous and entirely without basis - legal advice, information, reports, judgements and numerous press reports have all been in the public domain for five years. And as I have explained before, there is an inherent and significant public interest for transparency over this issue.
And who do you think is so annoyed with the 'leak' that councillors' access to information has been restricted?
The same control freak who restricted Sian Caiach access a few years back for 'asking too many questions' and who threatened councillors with court action, to give just two examples.
This secretive, controlling nonsense lies squarely at the door of Mark James and his personally appointed legal umbrella, Linda Rees Jones. Our Leader, Cllr Dole is just grateful for his £48k a year, and does exactly what he's told. Just like every other council leader since the chief executive arrived from Boston all those years ago.
Ombudsman investigation costs
Previous post; Mark James' complaints against Sian Caiach - the Ombudsman's conclusion
A few weeks ago I made Freedom of Information requests to the council, and the Ombudsman's office, for the cost of the investigation. With Mark James CBE having wasted 18 months of everyone's time, I wondered what it had also cost the taxpayers' of Carmarthenshire and indeed Wales.
The council's response
Remarkably, for the 18 months investigation, the only thing that the council had actually written down was an hour and a half of officer time amounting to £92.40.
This response was bizarre on so many levels. They could, for all we know, have spent £100,000 but if they only 'recorded' one little bit, ie £92.40, then that's all they have to disclose under FOI.
Mr James' complaint ran to 32 pages, assisted by free use of the council legal department rather than instructing his own solicitor; there was 'evidence gathering' in the form of statements from several council officers, there were documents obtained from the police, letters from council solicitors; the trawling of several blogs and assorted tweets, computer and printing costs, and whatever else occurred during the 18 months.
£92.40 probably just about covered the cost of printing out, yet again, Mr James' favourite bedtime reading, Tugenhat's lengthy judgement.
Mr James has form of course in using public resources, including hard cash, to pursue his personal vendettas and has habitually treated publicly funded resources as a mean to his own ends, or a means to failure, particularly in respect of his complaints to the police about me or his complaint against Sian Caiach.
What this deliberate omission to log expenditure means is that not only are the press and taxpaying public kept in the dark, but, more importantly perhaps, so are the auditors, and without a paper trail Mr James could have, and indeed did, spend and utilise whatever wanted. The true cost of this little exercise is probably the equivalent of at least couple of years pay for a junior council worker.
The FOI request and response can be seen here.
The Ombudsman's response
The Ombudsman's office would 'neither confirm or deny' that they held the information. This kind of response enables a public body to refuse to confirm that an investigation took place to protect sensitive information from disclosure and is usually reserved for FOI requests concerning police investigations or matters of national security.
The refusal by the Ombudsman to 'confirm or deny' in this case was somewhat unexpected, with their response bringing up issues of 'confidential investigations' and 'data protection'. I asked for the costs of course, not any documents or personal information about anyone. As for the investigation being confidential, the outcome was reported in the press.
I have now asked for an internal review which, along with the response etc, can be seen here.