Jacob Williams
Tuesday 6th December, 2016

Disregarding Harding

Disregarding Harding

At around this time of year I imagine most bloggers, like me, look back on their draft posts which, for whatever reason, were never published during the previous twelve months.

2016 is about to go down as the first complete calendar year in Pembrokeshire County Council’s post-Laurence Harding era.

How on earth did we manage to get through?

Harding, for those fortunate enough to have forgotten, was the authority’s now-retired mumbling, bumbling monitoring officer.

He reached the pinnacle of his fame with his instrumental role in the outrageous ambush of opposition councillors at the infamous ‘Valentine’s Day Massacre’ council meeting.

Mr. Harding stuffed select press cuttings into a brown envelope as part of his meticulous planning for this stunt, which he then carefully left on the back seat of the chauffeured council limo he’d dispatched from County Hall to pick-up an expensive London QC from the railway station.

Monitoring officers are statutory posts oft referred to as the ‘ethical eyes and ears,’ whose job it is to keep local authorities on the straight and narrow.

And the antics of PCC’s erstwhile monitoring officer features in one post I drafted this summer but never published – until now.

I was inspired to put finger to keyboard by some of the reader-comments on one of my posts featuring our bearded friend.

In the post, from August, I made reference to the standards committee hearing which meted out to cabinet member Cllr. Rob Lewis a mere fortnight’s suspension from office for his wholesale breaches of the councillors’ code of conduct.

Cllr. Lewis and ex-councillor David Wildman – both cabinet members – memorably used the cabinet room as their ‘independent’ party’s election HQ and misused council resources for political purposes, clearly in breach of the rules.

I referred to the resulting disciplinary hearing, and the decision taken by Laurence Harding which saw him sit in on the standards committee members’ deliberations.

When councillors had previously been hauled before the standards committee, proceedings followed a protocol similar to the magistrates’ court.

The evidence and representations would be heard in open session, but members would retire to a private room to conduct deliberations.

A committee officer would sit in, whilst the senior legal officer – in this case the monitoring officer, in the magistrates’ court it could be a suitably qualified lawyer or judge – would be on standby, and called in if required to assist on points of law or process.

At the start of the hearing, Mr. Harding announced that the committee officer who usually sat in on deliberations was ‘unavailable,’ and that he would be sitting in instead.

The man who was the standards committee’s chairman at that time, Ian Williams from Tenby, commented on my blogpost to reassure us that Mr. Harding’s presence in the deliberating room “had no impact on the outcome” of the disciplinary hearing.

And I should hope so.

The author of that other website, Cllr. Mike Stoddart, replied that, as this all went on behind closed doors – with the public and press excluded – we have to take the committee members’ word for that.

But what standards committee members weren’t to know is that the supposedly impartial Mr. Harding – who as monitoring officer held a post requiring the utmost independence and probity – might have considered whether he should be anywhere near this case at all.

In the early stages of my 2012 Partygate exposé, long before I’d published them all on my website, Mr. Harding tried to discredit what would go on to become the disciplinary case’s star evidential exhibits.

This was from JW’s haul of Partygate files – the bundle of computer documents and election leaflets which blew open Pembrokeshire council’s ruling independent party’s secret electioneering strategy, all created using council equipment in breach of the rules.

Haverfordwest’s Cllr. David Bryan, until 2012 a long-time ‘independent’ group member, realised that these files showed he was being stabbed in the back by what he thought were his ruling group colleagues.

Despite his loyalty to the Independent Political Group (IPG), the leaks showed the IPG’s top brass were backing a fellow councillor’s brother to stand against him – support which included, as for so many other candidates around Pembrokeshire, the creation of election literature.

That such an epiphany was necessary for Cllr. Bryan to see how disreputable these people are is perhaps not the best testament to his judgement – but he had the last laugh when he defended the seat with an 87% share of the vote to the double-dealing IPG candidate’s 13%, after which he kicked this ruling ‘independent’ party into touch.

Nonetheless, the dishonour was clear, and the revelation understandably rankled.

Knowing that the rules are crystal clear on the use of council resources for party-political purposes, Cllr. Bryan’s first port of call, armed with some of the corroborating evidence, was PCC’s monitoring officer, Laurence Harding.

My Partygate bounty not only tied cabinet members David Wildman and Rob Lewis to the creation of several candidates’ election literature, but, more importantly as far as the rule-breaking goes – the document properties of the digital files confirmed they were created using PCC equipment.

Information embedded within the documents logged the authorship details as “lewisrob” and “David Wildman”, and, chiefly, it recorded the “Company” as “PCC.”

This bit was key to the whole case.

As Cllr. Lewis alluded at his standards committee hearing, in terms of the code of conduct, he would have got away scot-free had he carried out his ruling party’s dirty work on his own computer equipment.

However, Cllr. David Bryan’s query to the monitoring officer with this evidence of the breach – a computer screenshot of the offending file properties – brought forth a reply of questionable neutrality from our man Larry:

Hi David,

I have spoken with John Roberts [PCC’s head of IT] and his comments were that the computer from which the screen print is claimed to originate is not disclosed on the screen print; the screen print does not indicate whether the document was received or sent.

However, he demonstrated to me how a screen print can be “created” by simply altering the information in the ‘Properties’ column on the right hand side of the screen print.

From a legal stand point, if this were a court case, I would suggest that the integrity of the “evidence” is not verifiable.

Regards,

Laurence J. Harding

Einsteinien levels of wisdom aren’t required to detect that these are the words of someone scoffing at the evidence.

We may never know what the monitoring officer asked of the council’s IT boss, or how he framed his query, but Mr. Harding’s selectivity in his reply to Cllr. Bryan – the sole suggestion that this evidence (or “evidence,” as he sneeringly puts it) of a cabinet member’s indiscretions could be forged – hardly demonstrates the open-mindedness expected of a public official in such an important statutory role.

In the interests of impartiality – or at the very least, factual balance – the MO might have told Cllr. Bryan that, on the other hand, he could be sitting on prima facie evidence of a significant breach of the code of conduct worthy of an ombudsman referral.

As readers of this blog and the Pembrokeshire media will know, Mr. Harding’s advice and opinions – particularly when it related to legal matters – often proved to be wrong and best ignored.

Fortunately, Cllr. Bryan didn’t swallow Harding’s not-so-subtle hint to drop the matter for want of quality evidence.

Unprepared to bury the grievance on Larry’s pooh-poohing say-so, Cllr. Bryan upped the ante – he went to the ombudsman.

Almost straight away, and certainly just before he was about to be fingered by the local government ethics watchdog, Cllr. Wildman resigned from office and left the country – leaving Lewis behind to carry the can alone.

Cllr. Lewis’ early communication with the ombudsman seemed to borrow a leaf from Harding’s book.

He made no denials over his creation of election literature on council computers, but seemed aghast that the ombudsman was more interested in investigating his rule-breaking than the circumstances surrounding my Wikileaks-style acquisition of the files – so he tried to sidetrack the investigator and turn the focus onto me!

This was evidenced in at least two missives which turned up in the ombudsman’s case file.

These were unsolicited emails the ombudsman representative received from Cllr. Lewis, in one of which he claims that JW – by now building up a head of steam on my serialised online publication of the Partygate files – had “stolen information” which was “illegally obtained!”

Of course, Cllr. Lewis still has no idea how the files came into my possession – which I know bothers him no end.

The ombudsman must have had better things to do because he never got in touch with me – or, it seems, responded to Cllr. Lewis’ straw-clutching emails.

Following a long investigation the ombudsman referred a myriad of breaches to a meeting of what Private Eye magazine calls PCC’s ‘amusingly titled’ standards committee.

This august body deliberated, in Laurence Harding’s presence, for all of a few minutes.

The proceedings are best remembered for what turned out to be this puisne court’s puny sentence.

The stories to be told of PCC’s ex-monitoring officer, Laurence Harding, are endless. He did as much as anybody to discredit public confidence in PCC and hinder opposition elected members’ ability to hold the administration to account.

Earlier this year I promised to recount the occasion when he tried, without success, to nail me with an entirely trumped-up charge. I’m working on it – and will publish before 2016 is out.


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23 Comments...

  • Keanjo

    Jacob, I’m sure Mr Harding will enjoy reading your revelations whilst enjoying his retirement on a nice fat pension and listening to his favourite song – ‘I did it my way’.

  • Timetraveller

    I don’t buy into Harding being “incompetent”. I think he served his purpose well, frustrating too much inquisition from yourself and “the most evil man in Pembrokeshire”.

    This authority has been run on keeping the council tax low, avoiding liabilities, where possible, regardless of ethics. When creative activities have been exposed, the council’s officers have operated as “team players” to minimise the damage.

    In this respect the former MO appears to have been on the “team” rather than bumbling.

  • Larry T Lamb

    I think it is very cruel of you to target the former Monitoring Officer, Mr Harding.

    He did his best, poor dab.

    It is not given to all of us to be blessed with the gift of literacy and the curse of intelligence.

  • Malcolm Calver

    Elections are coming fast and many contributors to this website have strong views on the capability of existing county councillors and the running of what is an expensive operation i.e. Pembrokeshire County Council.

    Surely the time has come for them to identify themselves and consider standing in the coming elections.

  • Flashbang

    It would be a wonderful thing if the people responsible for denying the county’s taxpayers good governance could be held accountable.

  • Martin Lewis

    This man was contemptible, and as his envelope stunt showed, he became involved in some of the most devious and snide actions perpetrated at this council during its darkest days.

    Imagine retiring with a history like that. Yes, maybe he’s laughing all the way to the bank with the pension we are funding, but riches are made of many more things than money – how about having a clear conscience?

    He was found lacking on many occasions and I’m only glad that during the last part of his career with PCC he could be clearly seen on various webcasts, and so could his attitude to upholding democracy within the council.

  • Tomos

    I guess there’s nobody you can report not-monitoring monitoring officers to?

  • Goldingsboy

    For those of us not familiar with your council’s procedures, can you tell me the process by which he came to be the Monitoring Officer, and whether it’s in the gift of councillors to change that process?

  • Goldingsboy, I believe he would have been appointed by a full council vote – that’s how his successor was appointed last year.

  • Phil

    Having sat through a seminar delivered by “Larry” on the councillors’ code of conduct I can assure Timetraveller that the epithet mumbling and bumbling is apposite.

  • Goldingsboy

    Your explanation, it seems to me Jacob, is that officers of the council simply place their own “shop steward” in front of full council on a take-it-or-leave-it basis and the built-in majority does the rest.

    Not a lot of transparency there, eh?

  • Flashbang

    I see the people of South Korea can get their President impeached, why can’t quasi dictators closer to home get booted out?

    In another story, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary has recommended among other things that Dyfed-Powys Police: “Needs to improve how it ensures its workforce behaves ethically and lawfully.”

    I fully second that observation after seeing how they fudge every investigation into PCC.

  • Brian

    This process will never be fixed until monitoring officers for local authorities are directly appointed and employed by the ombudsman or some other arm’s length body.

  • John Hudson

    By law Monitoring Officers are required to exercise their responsibility on a personal basis. The Chief Executive Officer, Director of Finance and Monitoring Officer all have responsibility for ensuring that the council does not make unlawful decisions. The Director of Finance has a statutory duty to ensure that the council does not spend more than it has got.

    Council is responsible for approving the annual budget, cabinet for monitoring and compliance. Directors/Heads of Department can only spend within their council-approved departmental budgets.

    Based on the slimmest of financial evidence, and NET spending on services of £186.7m, we, the public, are consulted on areas for substantial savings.

    The council spends a total of £329m on our services and other financing requirements. It has substantial reserves and balances that we are not informed about.

    For all the financial control arrangements implied by the “rules” above, the council failed to meet its savings target in 2015/16 (rolled over to be delivered in the current year) and unless officers can deliver them this year, together with required 2016/17 savings, may not do so again.

    Officers still allow cabinet to add extra projects into the budget without demanding explanation and direction of where to make the necessary equivalent savings.

    Cabinet is quite content to leave hard savings decisions for officers. Where is the political direction, control and discipline?

  • Suzie

    You appear quick to point out the failings of mr Harding – yet which councillors agreed to the recently appointed director of finance on around £129k to be given back pay and a car allowance of £10k per year. Now this week a director of transformation has been appointed while more redundancies have been announced – soon there will be managers and directors operating the bin lorry when all the low paid workers have been got rid of. Jacob earn your position and shake things up because people voted for you!

  • Mr. Harding’s failings were numerous and often high profile, Suzie – but I can’t see what that’s got to do with the two managerial positions you refer to.

    The director of finance post was approved at the council meeting in July, the webcast for which can be found here.

    The vote takes place at 2 hours 39 minutes. No recorded vote was taken but it was a large majority, you will see that I was not among those who voted in support.

    As for the head of transformation, that was approved at last week’s full council meeting. I take it from your comments that you haven’t seen the meeting webcast but I attempted to get a recorded vote on the creation of this costly position.

    I was and remain opposed to the post, but the IPPG, supported by others including Labour fought tooth and nail to hide the fact they voted for this expensive extra layer of bureaucracy.

    I had tried to make sure that an individual vote would take place on this position, rather than bundle it in with other positions as was the chief executive’s intention. I also tried to force a recorded vote, but so keen were they all to conceal their support for the transformation post that this never happened.

    This post by Old Grumpy may fill you in further.

  • Malcolm Calver

    May I thank you Jacob for your brave efforts in regard to the appointment of the Head of Transformation and it just shows that the Labour Party would operate in the same way as the IPPG if in power at County Hall.

    The meeting webcast also showed that the chairman Cllr Brinsden has a problem with your openness, forward looking attitude and has clearly become part of the establishment, maybe as a result of his previous career in the police force.

    It is obvious from the webcasts that the electorate in Pembrokeshire failed to elect a majority of councillors who were prepared to take an independent attitude and take on officialdom.

    What is also clearly shown on the webcasts is the existence of councillors who sit on the council, who do not have the ability or inclination to take part in debate and therefore should be denied a salary.

  • Goldingsboy

    I am astonished to learn from your blog, Jacob, that the Labour Group voted in favour of a very costly and unnecessary, “Head of Transformation”.

    Do you know, does anybody know, why they fell into line with the IPPG?

    Perhaps it’s simply code for: “If any seats on the Cabinet Gravy Train become vacant, Jamie…”

  • Suzie

    Thanks for the clarity Jacob, and thanks for pushing for transparency. Certain councillors need to go!

  • Patrick

    I think it is time all votes were recorded by going over to an electronic voting system so the public can see clearly how each member voted. The posts should have been voted on individually.

  • Pembs. Exile

    In the “good old days” of local government the policy of a council was determined by unselfish, unpaid men and women, interested in providing for the needs of the community in which they lived, and advised by appointed professional officers.

    When the policy was determined, it was left to the officers of the authority to implement that policy, within the agreed budget.

    When savings needed to be made council instructed officers to suggest ways and means of making the required savings. If no suggestions were forthcoming then council made the decisions that they thought appropriate. When the decisions were made it was, whether they agreed or not, the responsibility of the officers to execute those decisions.

    Fast forward, I read that Pembrokeshire County Council now wants to appoint a Head of Transformation to do the work that they, the council’s well paid councillors and officers, should be doing.

    I can only suggest what this “gutless” council are trying to do is to make an appointment so that they have someone to blame in the future for the authority’s reckless mismanagement over the past years.

    I suggest that the county would be best served if a Head of Transformation was appointed with the brief to transform a Council which is not fit for purpose into a competent, democratic and transparent council.

    I am sure the results of such a goal being achieved would result in the required savings being made.

    Perhaps the Pembrokeshire electorate will play the “Trump” card at the next council elections.

  • Flashbang

    Pembs. Exile: I reckon there are plenty who would stick their hand up to be the “scapegoat” for £100K+ and no chance of being pursued by that other gutless bunch.

  • Keanjo

    Anyone notice that the acronym for the new appointment is HOT – and a hot seat it will be.

    Qualifications for the post are that the successful person should be unfriendly, non gregarious, and take pleasure in torturing people with questionnaires before sending them their letters of dismissal.

    Shouldn’t be too difficult to find candidates.

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