Jacob Williams

A senior moment

Saturday 30th September, 2017
A senior moment

I was interested to read last week’s complaint Mid Bedfordshire MP Nadine Dorries sent to the civil service chief executive concerning a government official’s conduct.

Sir David Norgrove, chairman of the UK Statistics Authority, had written a press letter in his official capacity criticising Boris Johnson MP and some of his Brexit-related comments.

In the formal letter (reproduced below) Dorries questions Norgrove’s “selective interventions misrepresenting the views and statements of elected politicians,” asserting: “As a senior civil servant that is not his job.”

Citing the “tradition of civil servant impartiality,” Norgrove’s publicly-expressed “political view” breaches the civil service code, claims Dorries, who requests an investigation “to establish what sanctions are appropriate for such a political intervention from a public servant.”

I’m afraid to say it’s reminiscent of the officer-dominated culture at Pembrokeshire’s County Hall, a place which, despite undergoing numerous improvements in recent years, still has several stubborn stains to scrub from the civic shagpile!

Much of it happens out of public sight, but the domineering tactics are a frequent fixture at council meetings, often subtly under the guise of ‘advice’ to ‘assist’ councillors during debate.

The favourite way of dressing up these incendiary interventions is as ‘legal advice.’

Usually made by officers, occasionally councillors, they can be effective in derailing or delaying a decision many perceive to be disadvantageous to the establishment.

The extreme, brass-necked end of the scale was epitomised – thankfully for us all, on film – by the council chamber’s notorious Valentine’s day massacre.

However it was a more recent County Hall incident, before the grounds for Dorries’ complaint letter arose, that put the topic on my blogging agenda.

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The senior moment…

It was the most recent meeting of Pembrokeshire County Council’s senior staff committee, debating a proposal tabled by cabinet member, Cllr. Paul Miller.

The Labour group leader wants a shake-up of the senior staff appointments process, which currently gives the chief executive sole control over longlisting and shortlisting.

Only after that stage are the chief’s cherry-picked few then put before senior staff committee members for interviews and appointment – on one occasion councillors were given only one applicant to choose from!

Miller made his case for elected councillors to be given a hand in the whittling exercise.

Sitting around the table with councillors, the decidedly disapproving chief executive’s numerous contributions left few doubts over his personal views, including the thinly-veiled suggestion Miller’s proposal was born out of distrust.

The very thought!

When asked if he had any examples of problems arising from the current appointments process, Cllr. Miller said he’d be happy to explain in secret session, with the public and press excluded.

As the webcast screen momentarily turned blank, viewers could only imagine the tale of shortlisting dubiety the committee was regaled with by the Neyland member.

On its return from the dark, the debate continued to be dominated by the chief executive – as is so frequently the case during council meetings – who finds difficulty, Nadine Dorries might say, realising it’s “not his job” to enter political debate.

Disagreeing with what’s said, offering interpretations, positing reasons to leave things alone are par for the course.

Whenever it arises at meetings I’m one of perhaps only two councillors – the other being Cllr. Miller – to immediately highlight and oppose this inappropriate tendency.

Mr. Westley interposed in a similar fashion during this summer’s college/council MoU scrutiny committee call-in.

Against Miller’s proposal which would water-down officers’ control over the senior staff recruitment process, it was claimed scheduling difficulties could arise if the committee shortlists, interviews and appoints on the same day.

That, and – you’ve guessed it – the possibility of legal challenge!

The debate was fragmented, and after Mr. Westley made an impassioned pitch in response to Cllr. Tessa Hodgson, Cllr. Miller had clearly had enough of the CE’s domination, saying: “I’m a little bit nervous that this is in danger of becoming a debate between some members and the chief executive,” and suggested the matter be put to the vote.

At this point, things went south. It’s hard to do it justice – only a review of the webcast will suffice.

The committee of seven (six were present) is chaired by council leader, Cllr. David Simpson, who asked for a show of hands in favour.

Cllrs. Hodgson and Miller raised their hands, and after a few seconds, Cllr. Miller asked Simpson: “Are you voting?”

Cllr. Simpson said yes, apologised for his omission, then raised his hand.

With councillors Jamie Adams, Huw George and Di Clements, presumably, about to vote against, Simpson’s vote was crucial to Miller’s success – and even then it would require him, as chair, to cast a tie-breaking second vote.

Miller didn’t say any of this, of course, but it didn’t stop Cllr. George’s claims of a voting fix.

With the seed of confusion sown, the chief took the initiative, intervening again.

“I think this is an enormously important issue,” he said, before claiming that it is “perfectly legitimate” for councillors to debate with him, and criticising how, having called the ‘abrupt’ vote, Cllr. Simpson failed to show his hand until prompted by another member.

Piling it on thickly, Mr. Westley exclaimed: “In thirty-odd years of sitting in council chambers I have never seen that happen before,” then asked the legal representative for “some guidance on what we should now do on this issue.”

The word “guidance,” here, is interesting. There was no controversy to be resolved, the vote should have simply been taken to a conclusion, and to her credit, that’s exactly what head of legal services, Claire Incledon, advised.

Cllr. Simpson, from the chair, said he had no intention of halting the debate, no other councillors had indicated to speak so he went to the vote, and asked: “if anybody else wants to carry on the debate, please indicate now, and I will carry on.”

He paused, and no councillor indicated.

Cue the chief executive, again, with the ironic:

“The reason I didn’t speak at the time, chair, is because I’m always very respectful of the fact that this is a members’ forum, and it’s perhaps not for me to prolong the debate. But I have to say that calling a debate to an abrupt end in the way that was just done, gives me the impression – which will be a lasting impression, as I indicated earlier on – that the view of officers is increasingly not valued.”

The feigned controversy over the ‘show of hands’ side-issue succeeded in turning the debate on its head, in what has to be one of the more outrageous meeting stunts of recent years.

Seizing on the concocted confusion, Cllr. Jamie Adams attempted to seal the fate of Cllr. Miller’s bid with an amendment which, despite appearing to negate the proposal, was voted on.

However it was defeated, leading to further back-and-fore between the chief executive and Cllrs. Hodgson and Miller.

The consensus, proposed by a browbeaten Miller, was that they would go off and discuss the topic in more detail, to be referred to a subsequent meeting.

Here, Cllr. Simpson’s seemingly trivial failure to show his hand at the right time was hijacked, effectively filibustering progress of a proposal councillors have every right to determine.

It took none other than – shock horror – Cllr. Huw George to probe the leader for some sort of explanation for sleepwalking into the vote.

Huw’s more used to answering questions at County Hall – or attempting to – but appears to find no discomfort in the opposition benches.

Indeed, the Rocking Reverend’s probing prowess was clear to see.

The leader’s lapse still isn’t clear but the quizzing cleric teased out a possible explanation: as the committee’s chairman, Simpson hoped to avoid voting unless to break a tie.

We may never get to the bottom of it!

Unfortunately, the principle of civil service impartiality is lost on much of the public – and more concerning, possibly even the majority of councillors.

The casual erosion of this established political principle is something I’ve opposed my entire time as a councillor, and I pledge to object – and enlighten the offenders – whenever it occurs.

Whilst I have no doubt about the way things should be, the councillors’ code of conduct could make the task of bringing about the necessary change a thorny topic.

Councillors proposing senior officer training on something which should be so obvious, could be met with claims of ‘disrespect,’ but something must be done about it.

Appointed civil servants are not elected representatives – and they shouldn’t try to be.

Dorries’ letter of complaint

A Massachusetts school librarian has just been scolded by superiors for her politically-natured rant refusing a gift of books from first lady Melania Trump. The Cambridge school district distanced itself from the blogged comments, published without authorisation, and has “counseled” Liz Phipps Soeiro on, among other things, “the policy against public resources being used for political purposes.”

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  • Flashbang

    Looks like BPJ MK II (along with the usual suspects working in the background) are taking the administration back into the dark ages.

    It also bothers me to learn that Jamie Adams is chairman of a ‘Civil Enforcement Task and Finish Group’. He has form and putting him in charge of anything is not my idea of progress, there must be far more capable councillors able to fill these positions.

  • Michael Williams

    During the South Pembrokeshire District Council days I had to continually point out to the then CEO Roy Jones and the Head of Planning Phil Bement that unless they were asked for specific advice by members, they should not enter the debate.

    I did say at one time, tongue in cheek, that I often suspected the CEO had surreptitiously voted!

    Cllr Vivien Stoddart, who attended SPDC meetings as a reporter, well remembers these events. It appears that little has changed.

  • Keanjo

    If an officer has information which he considers may assist members in their debate he should indicate accordingly to the Chair who could, if he considered it necessary, invite the officer to speak.

    This should enhance the quality of debate and assist in arriving at a satisfactory decision.

    Good Local Government is achieved by mutual respect and cooperation between officers and elected members but I fear PCC are nowhere near that situation.

    Until that is established the Council will continue to blunder on as they have over the last few decades.

  • Malcolm Calver

    I do believe Pembrokeshire residents were advised that with the crowning of Cllr Simpson things would change for the better, I am afraid it appears that this might not be the case.

    If Cllr Miller was sure of his facts why was there a need to exclude the public and press?

  • Malcolm, I don’t know what Cllr. Miller said during private session, but it seems from the webcast that he felt it was necessary if talking about the personal circumstances of an individual who may or may not have gone on to be employed at PCC.

  • Vivien Stoddart

    Yes, as a reporter for the then West Wales Guardian I well remember Cllr Mike Williams challenging senior SPDC officers when they sought to interfere and influence the democratic process.

  • Malcolm Calver

    If I read it correct, Cllr Michael Williams chastising employees/officers resulted in them not interfering and therefore trying to influence the process.

    The question that needs answering is have Pembrokeshire County Council officers become more assertive or have a majority of the present county councillors become easily intimidated?

  • Preseli View

    Or is Councillor Simpson too emollient and weak to put Mr Westley back in his box?

  • Ivor Whistle

    So, all we can deduce from the above is that nothing has really changed. Animal Farm was not fiction, it was a documentary!

  • Malcolm Calver

    Whilst Cllr Simpson must take some of the flak you also cannot excuse many of the councillors who seem to sit at meetings observing what is going on, saying nothing.

    Sometimes you would think councillors are only there for the money they receive for attending.

    The chairman should also become more active, intervene and correct the situation when officers/employees try to dominate meetings. Perhaps the gold chain is too tight around his neck.

  • Martin Lewis

    What I find most amusing about the webcast is Huw George’s indignation at Cllr Simpson’s actions.

    Simpson did absolutely nothing wrong at all but Huw George was trying to chastise him when George and Adams were both guilty of rehearsed actions a hundred times worse when they were in “power”. Carry on Cllr Simpson, you’re doing a fine job.

  • Keanjo

    In fairness to the Chief Executive, he is the executive head and responsible to the council for carrying out the council’s instructions.

    It follows that he must have a major input in choosing his senior team and in the meeting he was clearly trying to protect that position.

    Again it comes down to a matter of trust. If the council are dissatisfied with some of his selections they should bring him to task to explain his actions and if they find there have been irregularities, they should discipline the Chief Executive and not blame the system.

  • Keanjo, as well as carrying out instructions, it’s the job of unelected civil servants to implement policies of elected administrations. That is why the former’s political views and personal opinions should not feature in the way they routinely do at PCC.

    Had the proposal raised legal or certain financial ramifications then it would be their duty to advise and if necessary intervene, but as we have seen, this is often abused.

    It was a perfectly legitimate proposal put forward by an elected member. That the chief executive might not have enjoyed the subsequent reduction in his ‘power’ did not have anything to do with him or the debate. He must adhere to whichever lawful policies the political administration approves.

    It’s well-known that Bryn Parry-Jones ruled with a rod behind the scenes, but he sat like a mouse during council and committee meetings, only speaking whenever he was called on by councillors to offer pointed advice. That is how it should be.

    An Oxbridge-educated solicitor, it was almost always of a legal nature – and what he said was usually correct. Usually!

  • Keanjo

    Obviously the word instructions includes the council’s policies, but the point I am making is that there seems to be little trust and respect between many elected members and the officers they have appointed to implement the council’s programme.

    Until some rapport has been established I fear the council will continue to blunder from one crisis to another, as it has in the past.

  • The past and present conduct of certain officers has done little to engender that ‘trust and respect’ you speak of – with some of the public as well as some councillors.

    I also said in my post that something needs to be done about it, and I’m still considering what.

  • John Hudson

    I see that there are a number of vacancies on overview and scrutiny committees.

    Do members perceive that these committees are a waste of time, or do they lack confidence to ask questions and/or challenge what they are told?

    Members of the public have been given the opportunity to ask questions at council and are being encouraged to get involved in scrutiny.

    We are also allowed to participate in consultations, based on minimal information. My question at council on Thursday illustrates just how officers can edit submitted views.

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