Jacob Williams
Friday 13th January, 2017
Trumped-up charges – Part 3

Trumped-up charges – Part 3

In part two I went through the ‘grievance report’ into the trumped-up charges which PCC’s ex-monitoring officer, Laurence Harding, told me would be heading to a standards committee ‘panel’ if I didn’t accept his conclusions and give the council’s European manager, Gwyn Evans, an apology.

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Needless to say, I disagreed with almost everything within Mr. Harding’s bungled report, I found his ‘conclusions’ entirely disagreeable and I was never going to apologise for doing nothing wrong.

But at this stage I was rather more interested in the proposed method Mr. Harding set out – i.e. the desire of ex-CEO Bryn Parry-Jones to refer this ‘grievance report’ for a show trial at the kangaroo court, and how it all came about.

I refer to it in such terms because, as you will see, there was absolutely no constitutional authority for their ambitions to drag it before this hasty ‘panel.’

What’s more: I was entirely resistant to their scheming plot, and every time I called them out on their miscalculations they changed gear.

So, after receiving the grievance report and covering letter as outlined in part two, I rooted through my copy of the council’s constitution.

I thumbed to the standards committee’s remit, where all I could find were founding principles like its purpose – “To promote and maintain high standards…” and: “To consider and make a determination on reports from the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales […] relating to allegations of breaches of adopted Codes of Conduct…”

As Mr. Evans’ baseless allegation had been determinedly treated by Mr. Harding in-house under the Mickey Mouse ‘informal’ ‘grievance’ protocol, there was absolutely no role to be played by the standards committee or ‘panels’ of its members.

Knowing he would be unable to, I asked Mr. Harding to point me to the constitutional framework allowing his ‘informal’ ‘grievance report’ to be referred in this way.

I also asked him what courses of action would be available to the standards committee considering this ‘report.’

As you can see from Mr. Harding’s reply, he tried to distance himself from the proposed method, saying it was all Bryn’s idea:

But the unwitting Larry dropped a big bombshell.

Before deciding he would refer this grievance report to the ‘panel’ of standards committee members, Bryn had consulted with Cllr. Jamie Adams – the council’s leader – on “the appropriate course of action.”

This turned out to be their biggest clanger in this escapade – and gave me all I needed to stop them in their tracks.

The council’s informal protocol did not allow for the chief executive to ‘consult’ with the leader when in receipt of a grievance report, he was merely required to ‘inform’ the leader.

Both being lawyers, it should have been obvious to Messrs Harding and Parry-Jones (or should that be messers?) that the involvement of the authority’s political leader in a grievance allegation – however groundless – went well against the principles of natural justice:

To which Harding replied:

It’s always nice to set a precedent – and Mr. Harding telling me I’m the first councillor he found unwilling to accept his word unquestioningly is a badge of honour.

However, a lack of ‘precedent’ is no excuse for what they were up to – making up the rules as they went along to fit their effort to nail me.

And to suggest that our Oxbridge-educated namedropping lawyer – or Bryn Parry-Jones M.A. (Oxon) as our vainglorious friend would insist – might consult dairy farmer Jamie Adams for legal advice on a tinpot ‘respect’ protocol stretches even Mr. Harding’s credibility.

The idea, too, that Gwyn Evans and I had a workplace ‘relationship’ capable of suffering a ‘breakdown’ in the first place, is preposterous.

But Mr. Harding’s mealy-mouthed words on how the chief executive should “have regard” to Cllr. Adams’ views confirmed he had no good explanation for such sloppy conduct – and I knew I had them on the ropes.

That afternoon I responded to Mr. Harding:

It was abundantly clear that Mr. Parry-Jones – whose job it was to merely ‘receive’ Mr. Harding’s grievance report – scrabbled to finger me, to hell with the rules.

Such was the quality of the informal process whose introduction to the council’s constitution Mr. Harding oversaw, nothing was codified and it was clear to nobody – least of all Larry and Bryn – what purpose it served when a councillor, like me, was unwilling to go along with it.

It was accepted by Mr. Harding that, even if he upheld an informal ‘grievance,’ absolutely no legal or constitutional authority existed for Mr. Parry-Jones, as chief executive, or anybody else to rebuke or punish a councillor.

Bryn Parry-Jones

Now in receipt of a report upholding the baseless allegation, the options for Mr. Parry-Jones to nail me were limited – and he knew it.

So Bryn came up with his own novel ruse – the show trial, before a ‘panel’ of members taken from the standards committee, to give it a cloak of respectability and appearance of officialdom.

Despite lacking any punitive powers, this protracted charade would, in itself, amount to retribution – and had the added bonus of being disassociated from Bryn personally.

Even though he proposed it should meet in private and confidential session – off a secret report with the public and press excluded – this would still create maximum exposure, following the age-old adages “there’s no smoke without fire” and “if you throw enough mud, some sticks.”

But the trouble with this half-baked plan was that Mr. Parry-Jones had no discretion to redirect Mr. Harding’s report.

The protocol, however deficient, was quite clear that this informal process terminated in Mr. Parry-Jones’ hands, nobody else’s.

Bryn was a very capable manipulator and ruthless administrator with a chokehold on his brief – among other things – but hopelessly devoid of interpersonal skills.

Many rumours pertaining to social etiquette – like if you met him in the corridor you weren’t supposed to speak or maintain eye contact – helped Bryn maintain a fearsome reputation in County Hall and beyond.

The rumours were all so entirely believable, especially considering the purpose-built complex – whose blueprints he oversaw – provided Bryn his own private staircase, locked by electronic key for his use alone.

I’m reminded of Prof. David Starkey’s description of Ken Livingstone as a ‘malign genius.’

Alas, Bryn wasn’t quite genius enough to realise it’s not a great idea to march two ruling group councillors up to your office for an expletive-laden lambasting.

Nor genius enough to get out of the room when councillors convened in his private office for a meeting that should have been held in public – but was unlawfully held in secret session – to introduce an illegal financial scheme of which he would become the chief beneficiary.

These two occasions – not the sum of events pointing to BPJ’s loss of grip – did come at the end of a near twenty-year run of untouchable dominance.

So it’s fitting that his bungling behind-the-scenes role in the trumped-up charges against me turned out to be one of the very last things he ever did as PCC’s CEO – days before shuffling out the back door with a generous golden handshake approved by his adoring ruling independent party councillors.

Four days after my email, I heard back from Mr. Harding – he told me, in many more words, that he would forward my emails to Mr. Parry-Jones “for his further consideration.”

I never had any direct communication with the chief exec, so ironically the only ‘mediation’ that went on was Larry acting as the middle man:

That was on the Monday.

I think a key difference between Mr. Harding’s and Mr. Parry-Jones’ approach to all this was that Bryn knew when the game was up.

He knew that the very purpose of this elaborate ploy – to knock me off balance for the audit committee’s investigation into the grant irregularities – had passed, having had no effect on my performance, which I will discuss in part four.

Obviously neither was willing to fall flat on his face, so by the Friday, I heard back from the monitoring officer with the chief executive’s ponderings.

Unwilling to accept defeat, their response to the immovable roadblock I’d put before them was to forge a third way – giving them an ‘out.’

This was achieved by asking Mr. Evans – the ‘complainant’ – if he wished throw the towel in.

To make it look like there was a choice, they also presented the option of carrying on with the show trial – a Hobson’s choice, considering they all knew by this stage the kangaroo court was off the table:

Knowing that Mr. Evans would throw the towel in, I took advantage of this last chance to enquire about this proposed referral to the standards committee:

Mr. Harding’s answer to questions three and four were particularly vague and not what you might expect from a monitoring officer whose job it was to ensure due process is followed to the highest rectitude.

But it’s a wonder he bothered to make up these answers at all, considering in the same email he was about to confirm my anticipation that Gwyn Evans had decided to pull out of this groundless procedure and refer “the matters within his grievance and others to the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales.”

Your guess is as good as mine as to what ‘other’ matters Mr. Evans could dream of burdening the ombudsman with, considering the jelly-like strength of the case he and Mr. Harding dragged through the council’s informal grievance protocol:

Now that the game was officially up I sent Mr. Harding an account of his bungled handling of this grievance.

If you wish to read the email I sent, click here...

As Old Grumpy’s fond of saying, when disputing senior County Hall officers by email, a prompt reply is usually indicative of their belief of being correct. When they’re slow to respond, it’s usually a sign that they think you could be right.

In a similar vein, short replies to searching emails offer analogous indications.

Mr. Harding, now out-trumped, came back with only a two-sentence reply, unwilling to address a single point:

In other words: “We’ve done nothing wrong but we’ll make sure we won’t do it again.”

But Mr. Harding’s hint that this informal protocol could benefit from some ‘improvements’ did little to address my main contention – that the main deficiencies lay within the persons who operated it in the consideration of Mr. Evans’ complaint:

Mr. Harding’s contradictory reply insisted on the one hand that he and the chief executive had followed the protocol to the letter, and on the other, that “The principle of the protocol is clear but the process could be reviewed to ensure completeness.”

And, on that very last line of Mr. Harding’s email of November 12th 2014, the saga of the trumped-up charges concluded.

I’ve heard nothing, from anybody, since.

I’d challenged their every step, they’d retreated, and all it boiled down to was nothing more than “the process could be reviewed to ensure completeness.”

Twelve days earlier Bryn Parry-Jones had ceased to be an employee after the ruling independent party’s councillors voted to throw a barrowload of money his way, thus bringing a to a halt the very substantive misconduct disciplinary proceedings against him.

The initially combative Gwyn Evans – who most indignantly alleged in the clearest possible terms that I had breached the code of conduct for bringing the office of councillor into disrepute – must have decided somewhat belatedly that discretion is the better part of valour.

Despite his flatulent promise to refer his “grievance […] and others” to the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales, Mr. Evans never summoned up the courage to follow through on his word and put the matter to the test.

That was two years and two months ago!

Since that time a lot of water has passed over the Kremlin’s weir.

In part four we will return to Mr. Evans’ complaint, and look at some of the intervening developments.


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19 Comments...

  • John Devonald

    Well done Jacob and good luck with the Kremlin lot, I can’t wait for mark four!

  • Malcolm Calver

    Jacob, there are many readers of your website waiting anxiously for every instalment of the shenanigans at County Hall.

    You have very bravely and openly given your readers a detailed report and you would have thought that the Western Telegraph, which you have made reference to, would have sent one of their intrepid reporters to interview you.

    I would have thought that with county council elections due in May 2017 the local press has a duty to inform their readers, who may not have access to your website, of the pressure that has been put on you as a “truly independent county councillor” by the establishment at County Hall.

  • Welshman 23

    It would seem that with all the goings on at the Kremlin a full investigation needs to be carried out before the next elections in May.

  • Timetraveller

    I would still maintain Laurence served the purpose he was appointed for, namely stymieing any opposition to the rather creative way things were done. Talent and competence are secondary issues to being a team player.

    Elections? Not much will change as there is such a divided political landscape as to render any opposition incapable of forming an administration. In short the IPPG would have to be invented if it didn’t exist.

    We have a similar problem at national level, with Labour in meltdown, Lib Dems discredited, leaving a party with 1 MP as the real opposition. Mind they have just effectively been gifted two more seats. You can’t hold a government or administration to account unless you have some capacity to replace them.

  • Keanjo

    I always thought the idea of having a Monitoring Officer was to protect people from Councils which had acted illegally, not protecting a Council which had acted beyond its legal powers.

    Maybe Harding should have examined whether the Council was responsible for wrongdoing in Pembroke Dock rather than trying to protect them.

    In this case the MO seems to have been very much influenced by the Chief Executive and the question must be asked whether it is wrong for the Authority to appoint the MO or whether he/she should be appointed by the Welsh Government?

  • Conservative secretary of state Nicholas Ridley told the Commons in the 1989 debate on the introduction of Monitoring officers:

    “We will establish a post of monitoring officer, whom all councils will be required to designate – not unlike the accounting officers in government departments. That person will have a duty to report to the council on any proposal or decision that may be illegal, in breach of a code of practice, or likely to result in maladministration or injustice.”

    We are extremely fortunate in Pembrokeshire to have an authority of such perfection that not a single report has been found necessary in the 20+ years since PCC was resurrected.

    Well, that’s one explanation.

  • Flashbang

    Why is there no oversight on councils who are quite clearly breaching all conventions on how they should be run?

    Also, why are there no penalties for officers not fulfilling their positions properly, the same goes for all the other miscreants infesting PCC over the years?

    The taxpayer is being taken for a ride.

  • Larry T. Lamb

    We must make a stand against some of the appalling cynicism shown by those responding to your posts, Jacob!

    The reason for the lack of any reports of maladministration, illegality, and injustice at PCC is perfectly clear.

    Not one single instance came to Laurence Harding’s hawk-like attention. had one done so, he would have pounced and borne the miscreant aloft for all to see and revile.

    Pembrokeshire is a Utopia of local government sound sense and sound governance, led by the glorious IPPG – who surely will not disband before May’s election only to resurface afterwards like an ill-flushed turd – advised by officers who are the very pinnacle of sound judgement and disinterested and rigorous analysis.

    I regret I must go now, the nurse has rung the bell and computer use time is over.

  • John Hudson

    A couple of years ago now, the Wales Audit Office included a determination to review “contentious legal decisions” in its Pembrokeshire audit plan. A remarkable step that says a lot.

    I have since been told that WAO officers do not have legal expertise, and perhaps this is why, in the case of the Cleddau Bridge, the council and the WAO who could not agree, agreed that it would be appropriate for the council to seek legal advice concerning its interpretation and working of the Dyfed Act 1987.

    Not surprisingly, the legal opinion sought to support the council’s custom and practice in both legal and accounting terms found all was well.

    Several councillors were unconvinced and sought further clarification as to the use of some accumulated £11m surplus and the continuing application of some £1.9m annual surplus toll income to support county-wide transport expenditure. Such further legal clarification has yet to be provided by council officers.

    The legal opinion pointed out that it had been sought on the interpretation of some relevant clauses in the Act.

    The last recorded minute of this affair culminated in the chairman of the economy overview and scrutiny committee stating that matters were still ambiguous concerning the council’s interpretation of the Dyfed Act 1987, but did not know what more could be done.

    Councillors will soon be required to vote on the authority’s budget including the use of significant annual toll bridge profits, some of which have unanswered legal reservations.

    As Mike says, only one legal opinion can be right and it is usually decided by the courts.

    If council officers do not, or will not provide, or seek full impartial legal views on contentious matters, where do we go from there? The past record and actions of the IPG-led PCC may not instil confidence in the claimed new open and transparent council.

    Has the IPG’s pre election activities been driven underground this time round? It is to be hoped that our money will not be used to support it.

  • Brian

    Monitoring officers have to be an appointee of and report direct to WAO. Until that structural flaw is sorted nothing will change.

  • Malcolm Calver

    Brian, do you not think our Welsh Assembly and Westminster members should have taken an interest regarding the shenanigans at County Hall or are they more concerned with saving their own bacon?

  • Brian

    Don’t be daft Malcolm, the ‘blues’ – including the undeclared in the council – have always stuck together like sh!t to a blanket 😉

  • John Hudson

    Yet more on the “non” legal advice available to council officers and councillors in order to make decisions.

    At the sniff of a potential money saving, and in the rush to slavishly follow the advice bought from external advisers on new ways of working in relation to leisure services, it would appear that the council overlooked the requirements of the Public Contracts Regulations 2015. This was one of many obstacles uncovered by detailed consideration by a task and finish group to be reported to the policy overview and scrutiny committee this week.

    However it is gratifying to read that the review “was a worthwhile exercise, and that many of the issues highlighted, particularly regarding governance will prove useful in clarifying matters for the services going forward.”

    Would it be uncharitable to suggest that these basic “procedural” obstacles should have been identified well before the council drew up its proposals for its preferred “outcome” and got approval for the public consultation on clearly unrealistic and unlawful assumptions?

    How much scarce officer time has been wasted on this exercise and diverted from its management role?

  • Timetraveller

    I would go so far as to say that provision of legal services should be severely limited in the public sector as a whole. That would probably put a lot of lawyers out of work, but they do so well by it at the moment.

    When it’s one public body v another, a public legal service should be able to simply adjudicate. Lots of drawbacks I know, the public service would not be able to attract the stellar talent so far engaged in Pembrokeshire, but then how many councillors were happy with the amount paid to Mr Kerr for his little party piece?

    Restrict public bodies from engaging QCs, unless perhaps the other side already engages one. Pembs engaged QCs in the Mavalon case simply to try to frighten off the other side, who then felt they had to do likewise. £500,000 of public money later on, a hopeless case for what? QCs were the only winners.

    The problem is that no one in the public sector has a personal liability for the costs.

    Quite right that monitoring officers should be appointed outside the council, at one point Huw Miller managed to fulfil being both Head of Legal and Monitoring Officer until they found the pliant Mr Harding, in the meantime he must have had a difficult time arguing with himself! (Not really.)

  • Welshman 23

    Malcolm, I wrote to Stephen Crabb MP who was then the Secretary of State for Wales, and his response was that he was aware of the situation but was unable to get involved, same response from the head of the Welsh Assembly.

    The email to the WAO was replied that they were aware of the situation.

  • Malcolm Calver

    Welshman 23, you did not really expect Mr Crabb to deal with such trivial matters, was he not proposing to lick a member of the opposite sex from top to toe at the tine? He needed to prioritise things.

    This issue will not see the light of day this side of the county council elections.

  • Keanjo

    Timetaveller, in the old days the County Clerk (a qualified lawyer) filled the roles of Chief Executive, Legal Advisor and Monitoring Officer without undue difficulty.

  • Timetraveller

    Crabb et al suffer from being part of the political class. They find it difficult to challenge or change the system because on election they become part of it.

    As some level of corruption is endemic in public bodies, there is little appetite to tackle it, save for the most blatant abuses.

    Trump may not have a clue about half the things he is doing – he is definitely a bull in a china shop at the moment. What he is doing is following through on election pledges and his electorate applaud him for doing so. Almost a first for a politician.

    Less well known over here are Trump’s attacks on overspends such as the grossly inflated F35 fighter, he wants Martin/Grumann to pick up a sizeable part of the tab. A Trump in Cardiff would certainly shake up cosy arrangements!

    Looking back through rose tinted glasses, the County Clerk appears the epitome of scruples and integrity, but then perhaps the levels of expectation from councils then weren’t what we have now.

    On the new post of Head of Transformation, isn’t that precisely the role the CEO is supposed to fill? Either he is not up to his job, or perhaps wants more time on the golf course (figuratively). So that will make four posts the clerk might have done.

  • John Hudson

    The CEO is not on his own, he has an unelected corporate management team of non-political, highly paid professional officers to help and advise him on how to put political instructions in operation.

    These are given to him by the elected members of the council, through the Leader of the council, who in turn is advised by his appointed cabinet members, supported by members of his political group. What can possibly go wrong, and if it does, why?

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