Sorry I’m late to the party – I was lucky enough to be blessed with a new daughter on 3rd January, and what with her needs and work, well, I’ve not had much time for blogging. Still, events in Carmarthenshire right now really shouldn’t be allowed to simply pass by without comment.
Basically, it’s been an interesting few days in Carmarthen, which have seen the Welsh Audit Office issue two “Public Interest Reports” into events at the council. A Public Interest Report is basically a mechanism by which, when the auditor finds something he / she considers out of place, provides a mechanism to inform the public at large.
The first report concerns arrangements that were made to pay the Chief Executive, Mark James, monies in leiu of pension contributions under the Local Government Pensions Scheme. The Executive Board of the Council have seemingly been misinformed that senior officers would have to leave the original scheme, and one has to wonder why this might be the case. Speculation is rife that this might be because the officers concerned wish to make their own, more “tax efficient” arrangements for their pensions. Whilst I would consider that to be immoral, it wouldn’t actually be illegal in and of itself. Unfortunately though, there were various “mistakes” made throughout the decision process, and it seems that the eventual decision to pay the money is actually unlawful.
Where that leaves the officers involved remains to be seen – and frankly subjustice means I perhaps shouldn’t add to speculation. It’s certainly not a happy place though, and when the dust settles and the revolution has swept the old adminstration aside, the newly reformed council might well consider how it might go about recovering this money – estimated to be more than £27,000 by the BBC – so we’re hardly dealing with pocket change…
The second report however is by far the more interesting to me, in that it concerns the council having provided the chief executive with an indemnity to cover his costs in pursuing a legal action against local blogger Jacqui Thompson, of #DaftArrest fame. This indemnity has been found unlawful in two regards.
It seems Mr. James as present at the meeting where the decision to extend an indemity was made, and failed to declare an interest. The council have responded claiming that the members of the Executive Board were properly briefed in a “pre-meeting” held before the official one, but this is irrelevant. Even if it did have relevance, no formal record exists as what was said, or indeed who said it. Clearly there are massive issues of transparency and public accountability raised by this – made all the worse by the fact that the Council was actually deciding to support action against a woman who has consistently brought the Council to account herself.
The public are entitled to three days notice of such discussions, but it seems that this was not done in this particular case. The Chairman apparently decided to admit the matter as an item of urgent business as it had to be addressed before the next meeting of the Executive Board. What’s interesting here is that the last information of relevance (the Council’s advice on the prospects of success for the Counter Claim) was received late on 17th January 2012, and the meeting itself called for the 23rd, to meet a deadline of the 24th for registering the counter claim. This meant that the public could should have been notified on the 18th – but this didn’t happen. Instead, the public were left unaware of what was going on.
These points in themselves are more than sufficient to render the decision to fund the libel counter claim unlawful, but it gets better…
The law is very clear that a local authority is not able to bring an action against a member of the public, or indeed to support such an action by one of its officers. For a start, we have the “Derbyshire Agreement” – and more in Wales we have very specific law from the Welsh Assembly that forbids this - Articles 6(3) of the Local Authorities (Indemnities for Members and Officers) (Wales) 2006 Order, Look it up…
The Council however claim that they can support the counter claim, because section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972, they feel, gives them the power to do anything “which is calculated to facilitate, or is conducive or incidental to, the discharge of any of their functions”.
This is of course complete Tosh – the 2006 Order clearly overrides it. Even if it didn’t, can the council really do anything conducive to any of it’s functions? The council is supposed to protect the local economy – does this mean they can raise an army, jump on coaches for a daytrip to sack Cardiff and take out the local Tescos? Clearly not.
The Council have been well and truly caught – and the repercussions of this will be ongoing for months.
As to what effect this has on the counter claim brought against Jacqui Thompson, time will tell. It’s becoming harder and harder for even the post ardent of Jacqui’s critics to deny that her case as the distinct smell of a miscarriage of justice about it now…