Monday 1 December 2014

When 10 people failed to "phone a friend"

Carmarthenshire County Council has received a very critical report from the Welsh Local Government Association, a report commissioned by them, from an organisation of which they are members and in which their leading Councillors have held office.

The reaction has been for Council to agree to set up a group of Councillors, selected by the various political groups, to look at the report and re-write the constitution which has been previously altered to prevent internal criticism of the ruling clique. No-one has taken responsibility for the sad state of affairs, no admission of wrongdoing and no resignations. The senior civil servants are leaving like rats from a sinking ship. The Councillors responsible are weathering the storm, hoping that by the next council election in 2017 the electors will have forgotten the scandal and vote for them again.

The issues which prompted the investigation were 2 unlawful payments to the chief executive which were picked up by the Wales Audit Office.

In the first case it was unlawfully giving money to the chief executive to pay his legal fees in a libel case against a blogger. He won, using the finest legal team and paying nothing himself, and got awarded £25,000 damages. His costs may have been over £40,000. We ordinary Councillors were told that the Executive had found a useful way of getting round the pesky law that stops all levels of government suing critics for libel. They had a legal opinion apparently, saying it was o.k. to fund an officer of the council in libel cases, in this case a proxy for the council as a whole .Not only the executive, but all the group leaders, including Plaid as well as Labour and the  right wing "Affiliated Independents" were all for it. No -one likes criticism apparently.

The problem was that no senior Councillor had seemingly checked the legal opinion by a Mr Goudie, which did not say what was claimed, quite the opposite in fact. We were lied to. A proper consultation, even of just all the other Councillors, with full access to all the documents would have
stopped this charade.

Looking back, I was wrong to assume anything was above board. I knew that the Exec Board were not renowned for their intellectual rigor and should not have thought that they had seen and understood, or even read Mr Goudie's legal report. I genuinely assumed, however, that the  County Council Officers would not go to the High Court ,spending huge sums of public money to punish a blogger if it was not legal, however immoral I might judge it to be. I should not have accepted that the reactionary Council leadership had found a legal way to prosecute pesky citizen journalists, as they claimed.  The convenient "loophole" in the law turned out to be unlawful.  I had wrongly believed that an official arm of government would always act within basic standards of decency and legality.  The Councillors, not the officers, are of course the ones liable. But in reality why should they fear any retribution, when the Labour Welsh Government has shown no clear desire to criticise  a Labour led council, one of "their own".

In the second case, it was clear that the Executive Board simply concealed unlawful payments made to our well paid Chief Executive when HMRC rule changes affected his pension contributions. Did our Council Executive Members really independently notice these rules had changed and rush to financially aid our highest paid employee financially inconvenienced by the tax system? None of them have given any explanation, but the suspicion is that it is more likely that the gentleman concerned would have initiated a request for the  payment deal he got. The ongoing secrecy is clearly the responsibility of the Councillors on the Executive Board and may originally have been not only due to the dodgy legality but also the likely political backlash if anyone found out. They must have known that even some of their their own group Councillors  would not countenance giving public money away in this circumstance, never mind their voters. No one else was told as no one else was trusted to keep mum about giving public money away to a rich employee in questionable circumstances. The continued secrecy condemns them all.

 So they hid the transaction. The minutes of their meeting do not record the decision to make these compensatory payments to the CEO. It's time someone did own up as to what actually happened and who was actually behind the decision to  promote and accept the scheme? The fact that an identical unlawful payment fiasco happened in adjacent Pembrokeshire County Council can surely not be co-incidental?. Again, no  apologies and no repercussions for the politicians involved as the Welsh Government appears to want to protect them rather than expose the issue further.

There has been a lot of discussion on possible introduction of  a "recall"  for higher ranks of  UK politicians, where a local petition could  result in a new election, where the incumbent has to stand again, but there is, as yet, no democratic way of voters getting rid of County Councillors before the next election in 2017. The  Council Executive Board members, who are paid significantly more than ordinary rank and file Councillors, clearly wish to carry on as well rewarded as before, with little acknowledgement of any problems brought up by these issues and absolutely no explanation of why and how they occurred.

I truly believe that if the Councillors who supported the unlawful payments had consulted with anyone outside their own inner circle, they would have acted differently.The  elected Leadership of our Council look like they have behaved deceitfully and wrongfully and refuse to say what really went on. What is so terrible about the truth of what happened?

As it is, we know unlawful payments were made on the authority of Carmarthenshire's leading Councillors. Neither the Welsh Government nor the major political groups on the Council appear seriously concerned enough to consistently condemn their actions and  press to seek explanations.  Many of the public have lost confidence in the whole Council, and don't understand the ongoing secrecy about what actually happened. Why is there no attempt of a truthful account of the decisions? If the WLGA investigators were told the truth, it isn't in their report. The leading players are not talking and we are encouraged by the WLGA assessors to change our culture, regain trust in each other and move on. With the same bums in the same seats and no openness or transparency about the mistakes, I don't think we're going far ! If only one of them had phoned a friend.....

Sian Caiach

1 comment:

  1. Sian, once again you have gone right to the heart of the matter and I salute your courage in being prepared to expose the corruption and hypocrisy which appears to be endemic in the upper echelons of the council. How do you begin to be able to trust any of them to act honourably? You are right: the only way to change the culture is to have a complete clear-out.


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