Jacob Williams
Tuesday 10th July, 2018

Inviting suspicion

Inviting suspicion

It’s amazing what you can piece together if you just soak in the information that emerges during some Pembrokeshire County Council committee meetings.

Sometimes pre-meeting gaps of knowledge are filled-in during the natural course of events. Other times it requires councillors to ask the right questions.

One of the best examples I can remember in my time on the council was the March 23rd meeting of the audit committee, of which I’ve been a member since 2014.

At the previous meeting on 30th January, the committee resolved to bring in the authority’s education director – Kate Evan-Hughes, its human resources manager – Ceri Davies, and the cabinet member for education – Cllr. David Lloyd.

It was in connection with the topic I had placed on the committee’s agenda, and on which I had also tabled ‘urgent’ questions to the December 2017 full council meeting.

This related to the Education Workforce Council hearing, in Cardiff, which found that the former headteacher of Saundersfoot primary school had, among other things, fiddled pupils’ results.

I was and always have been clear that what went on with the teacher – who has been dealt with accordingly by the EWC – wasn’t actually the issue I raised at either council or the committee.

My interest was the way in which it emerged at the hearing that the council had previously mishandled a complaint sent in by the school’s new headteacher about dodgy test results.

That complaint had been raised high in the council but was swept under the carpet.

In a nutshell the succeeding headteacher noticed a sharp drop-off in pupils’ attainment.

He put his suspicions to the council – which was seemingly common knowledge among some colleagues – that the explanation for this rested with the former headteacher’s massaging of the figures.

He was told by County Hall that “little was to be gained from an investigation” into the former headteacher’s practices because she had already retired from the school.

She did, however, continue to work within the council’s education department.

This complaint was not dealt with properly, and it was a year later, when a second complaint was made to the council’s education department, that the right course of action was taken, resulting in the referral to the Education Workforce Council.

All committee members were in agreement that the mishandling of the complaint was a serious matter.

I stated that it was not my wish for any lengthy written reports to be drafted, and I remain of the view that, on such a topic it is far better for the relevant senior council officers to come before the committee to explain what happened and answer audit committee members’ questions.

And that’s what we resolved, as the minutes record:

The Director of Schools, Cabinet Member for Education and the Head of HR, are invited to attend the next meeting of the Audit Committee.

The next meeting was to be held on 14th March.

When its agenda was published it became clear that somebody in officialdom had decided that the aforementioned senior officers wouldn’t be required to attend.

In a brazen effort, the report to the March meeting now said:

Following discussion with the Chair of the Audit Committee [Cllr. Tony Baron,] it was agreed that the Head of HR and the Director for Children & Schools need not attend. It was agreed that it would be more appropriate for the Investigating Officer & the Cabinet Member for Education & Lifelong Learning to attend the meeting to provide assurance to the Audit Committee on the investigation process, outcome and lessons learned. Wales Audit Office will also be in attendance to respond to any queries arising from their recent review.

Moving the goalposts after councillors have made decisions, or perhaps to prevent them making them in the first place, is certainly not uncommon.

But this had all the hallmarks of the sort of classic bait-and-switch maneuvers not seen at the Kremlin on Cleddau for years!

It was also hauntingly similar to the tactics of old: to change the issue to something else – the council’s whistleblowing policy.

The report to the meeting included the suggestion:

The Chief Executive [Ian Westley] has been in contact with both Wales Audit Office (WAO) and Estyn in respect of this matter. WAO have recently undertaken a review of the Council’s Whistleblowing and Grievance Procedures and a copy of the report is attached at Appendix A.

The whistleblowing policy was not the issue – it was the way the complaint had been swept under the carpet and the decision that: “little was to be gained from an investigation.”

But, as you will now see, what is most interesting about the absence of our invited guests – or, as you will discover, uninvited guests – is the timeline of events.

I got to the bottom of exactly what went on after committee members resolved to invite the trio before the committee.

The dodge

Based on what we were told, the officers had been watching the audit committee meeting’s webcast – either live, or after the recording was archived – where they saw members vote for them to appear before its next meeting.

Before anybody had the chance to act up on the committee’s resolution and send out the invites, ‘they’ – whether jointly or independently, we don’t know – made enquiries of their own to find out if such a request had to be complied with.

The committee was told this by the audit officer who handled the query.

They were informed, in consultation with the committee chair Cllr. Tony Baron, that they wouldn’t have to comply.

Consequently the invitations, requests, commands, whatever you want to call them were never sent out to the director of education or the HR manager.

Education cabinet member Cllr. David Lloyd did, however, turn up.

In the corridor afterwards he told me of his shock that, what he had seen unfold at the meeting was the first he had learnt of the committee’s January resolution for him and the two officers to attend, and the subsequent brush-off.

Lloyd, a barrister, was clearly not happy with what had happened – no doubt feeling that it reflected poorly on the council’s education directorate.

Others may feel it refelcts poorly on the general concept of accountability at a public body like PCC, when senior-level officers seek to avoid a meeting where they know they will be asked questions by councillors.

Take two

During the meeting I did a quick scout on Google for audit committees’ legal powers in Wales.

I read out the bit saying that they: “may require members and officers of the authority to attend before it to answer questions.”

And that it’s “the duty of any member or officer of a local authority to comply” and that they are “not obliged” to answer any question they would be “entitled to refuse to answer in, or for the purposes of, proceedings in a court in England and Wales.”

Committee members were clearly in no mood to be given the brush-off a second time – with a particularly sharp Cllr. Vivien Stoddart making sure our new resolution recorded that we “required” the education director’s attendance at our next meeting.

That’s due to be held on Thursday this week – 12th July at 10am, County Hall or webcasted here.

It was a most interesting meeting and, in the face of all the committee heard, readers must admire the spirited defence put up by the chief exec.

It had to be said – and it fell to me – that the attendance dodge did little to backup the constant claims of County Hall’s ‘new’ ethos of transparency.

Mr. Westley did provide some new information to the committee in the absence of the two officers, such as the clear suggestion that the education director had been in some way reprimanded in relation to the handling of the first Saundersfoot school complaint.

No details were given, and he said it was not appropriate for the committee or its members to see or know any more about that private matter.

On the whole, it wasn’t his finest hour.

The debate on this topic featured some back-and-fore between the two of us, including his barrel-scraping suggestion that we can’t really say with certainty that the officers wished to avoid appearing before the audit committee:

At 2:04:00 of the webcast:

IW: “…a quick observation there, I’m not certain, Jacob – again, perhaps you are – that they’ve chosen not to attend, or preferred not to attend. You might be aware of some conversations that I am not, but I haven’t had that debate with them as to whether they would like to or not.”

JW: “Come on, Mr. Westley! Like I said, you don’t ask a question: ‘Am I required to attend?’ if your desire is to attend…”

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  • Malcolm Calver

    The children of Pembrokeshire deserve better than this, falsifying the figures is a disgrace but dodging an investigation shows the contempt of officers/employees at County Hall.

  • John Hudson

    As we are aware, councillors have to have regard to advice given by council officers, but what position are they in when, after applying their independent assessment of the merits of the circumstances and the public interest, they disagree with that professional advice?

    In recent Ombudsman’s cases (not involving PCC) the following has been quoted:-

    The Tribunal referred to the decision of Mr Justice Hickinbottom sitting in the High Court in the case of Heesom v Public Service Ombudsman for Wales [2014] EWHC 1504 (Admin), and in particular paragraph 42:

    “Civil servants are, of course, open to criticism, including public criticism; but they are involved in assisting with and implementing policies, not (like politicians) making them.

    As well as in their own private interests in terms of honour, dignity and reputation, it is in the public interest that they are not subject to unwarranted comments that disenable them from performing their public duties and undermine public confidence in the administration.

    Therefore, in the public interest, it is a legitimate aim of the State to protect public servants from unwarranted comments that have, or may have, that adverse effect on good administration.”

    This is all about confidence in the impartiality and completeness of the advice given.

    Not too long ago, the council’s external auditor found that members of PCC were not always provided with proper information that enabled them to fully perform their statutory duties.

  • William Rees

    Oh dear!

    Incidents like this make you question if the culture has changed at all.

  • Jeff Harrington

    I have asked the education department to tell me why three Pembrokeshire secondary schools are in the worst ten in Wales, with absenteeism being a big factor.

  • Keanjo

    We have to appreciate that the Chief Executive has had a difficult job in attempting to change the ethos of the organisation he inherited but on this occasion I believe he has overstepped his authority.

    Members have a right to expect officers to account for their actions and the Chief Executive has no right to prevent that although I believe he should be allowed to accompany the staff member involved.

  • John Hudson

    Today, Thursday 12 July the Audit Committee meets. Item 14 on the agenda – Wales Audit Office National and Local Reports contains the WAO report on its review of overview and scrutiny arrangements specifically on PCC, easy to overlook as it is scheduled as a mere appendix.

    These arrangements were long overlooked by PCC officers until they became a statutory requirement.

    Section 16 of the auditor’s report points out that the Director of Development is the manager of the scrutiny support function but that statutory responsibility for the function sits with the Head of Legal and Democratic Services.

    Elsewhere, Section 15, it is pointed out that reports to O&S committees are not checked by legal services and that this presents a potential risk as a formal part of the council’s decision-making service.

    How did the council come to approve the current revised scrutiny arrangements that, would appear to be questionable?

  • Patrick

    I watched the meeting this morning (12/07/2018) and I think I now know why the education director was not keen on being in attendance.

  • Keanjo, whilst I obviously agree on the part of your comment about officers accounting for their actions, I haven’t suggested (nor has anybody I’m aware of) that the chief executive had any involvement in the ‘derailment’ of the committee’s January resolution to invite the two officers.

  • John Hudson

    Having watched the “event” can it be assumed that the council did not consider, or take any action, regarding the press-reported, but apparently unsubstantiated, claims that children had to be reassessed when they entered secondary school?

    The council appeared to be unaware of this consequence.

  • Michael Williams

    I note the “falsifying” of figures in schools.

    This went on in other local schools and was brought to the attention of the local authority at the time.

    I know in this instance an LSA questioned inflated marks given to a student, and was told to “mind your own business”.

    After this event that LSA’s life was made so difficult by the headteacher that she was forced to resign. That same head sailed off into a comfortable retirement.

  • Faux Espoir

    For too long PCC have a culture of whitewashing, with transparency a word not used at the highest level.

    If the report was quashed then the culpable officer(s) must be held to account with disciplinary action.

    Mistakes at this level must be publicly accountable and if necessary examples made, unlike recent scenarios when high profile casualties swan off with a package and pension intact.

    County councillors: now is the opportunity to put down a baseline for the betterment of Pembrokeshire.

  • Goldingsboy

    Nothing has changed, other than their duplicity is showing a bit more class.

  • Malcolm Calver

    For many years falsifying figures about performance has been the norm at all levels in Pembrokeshire schools.

    I note the comment by a Michael Williams and if the person commenting is Cllr Michael Williams, perhaps he would share with the readers of this website what steps he took to bring it to the attention of his colleagues at County Hall and just as importantly, parents.

  • Pembs. Exile

    Inviting suspicion? Are you truly claiming that an employer no longer has the right to request that an employee makes an appearance to account for decisions that have/have not been taken by that employee?

    Yes they could request that the meeting be held in private. Yes they could refuse to answer questions if they felt that to respond incriminated them in any way.

    Who rules in Pembrokeshire?

    Councillors cannot go on making accusations against officers of the authority, neither can they continue to suggest that the minutes of the meetings are not accurate records of the decisions taken by the committee without taking appropriate action against those involved in such actions.

    I was always under the impression that at each meeting of a committee the first task was to “Approve the minutes of the last meeting as a correct record”.

    Is that something else that in the modern era has become old hat?

    The new council seems to be just as, or perhaps, more gaffe prone than its predecessors.

  • John Hudson

    Is it the council (i.e. the newly elected unaligned councillor majority) or the old, now minority officers’ party together with the old, still in post, impartial officers, advising the council?

  • Dai Trump

    John, it seems to me that the old, still in post, impartial officers as you put it still have more sway and control of a lot of things than the newly elected unaligned councillor majority.

    The other lot, or as you so brilliantly put it: the old, now minority officers’ party are simply waiting for the next elections while throwing the odd spanner in the works in the interim just for good measure.

  • John Hudson

    I think that the “Officer’s Party” description is originally attributable to Old Grumpy, aka Councillor Mike Stoddart.

    This stems from the period when elected members of the old independent political group (aided by then closet Conservatives) were, on the public record, as having to follow officers’ advice as they were the professionals, on the basis that officers were highly qualified and professional and that it did not fall to mere lay councillors to question their advice.

    Luckily these days, elected councillors are expected to question advice, particularly if it appears to be biased rather than impartial.

    I do have a written answer to a question asked at a previous public inspection of accounts to the effect that, while councillors are expected to take all relevant considerations into account when making decisions, it is for officers to determine what is relevant.

    Pass the rubber stamp, but things are improving – slowly.

    The old “officers’ party” effect may still be seen in operation when, as now chairs of scrutiny committees, they appear to be able to divert or even prevent legitimate probing by councillors.

  • For many years PCC was run by an outfit known as COMB (Chief Officers Management Board) with the majority Independent Political Group (IPG) being called upon from time to time to apply the democratic gloss to the board’s decisions.

    When Maurice Hughes was leader of the IPG (sometimes known as the Pembrokeshire Independent Group), my friend David Edwards suggested that COMB actually stood for Control Over Maurice’s Boys.

    With apologies to the girls who were also members of the IPG.

    There were other suggestions for the meaning of COMB which I can no longer recall, though I seem to remember that in one version the last two letters were said to stand for Mighty Bryn.

    As in:

    “Come all without, come all within
    You’ll not see nothing like the Mighty Bryn”

  • Michael Williams

    Hello Malcolm, it is me indeed!

    Re the LSA: Yes, some members were informed as were some parents, and some staff were aware but one told me she was afraid to speak to anyone, such was the, in her opinion, “tyrannical” management in place at the time.

    The LSA was advised to seek legal advice, which she did at a total cost eventually in excess of £14k before she, and I, decided that the coffers were becoming depleted to an alarming extent with no satisfactory conclusion within sight.

    I don’t think I can add much more, but the event did cause huge emotional stress. Unfortunately the LSA felt intimidated into signing a gagging order in order to get a limited reference.

  • Malcolm Calver

    Michael, thank you for your explanation/information and whilst I am aware of the cost of legal action when you take on Pembrokeshire County Council and its associated stooges, who advised the LSA to seek legal advice?

    Surely present day councillors like yourself have the right to see/examine the details of the gagging order.

    I do feel lucky I attended Pembrokeshire schools when you received an excellent education that was compatible with your ability, but there, in those days I believe parents took more of an active role in their children’s education and were more realistic as to their capabilities. Teachers also had more control over the pupils with less fear of losing their jobs if they tried to instil discipline

  • John Hudson

    In view of the information provided by Councillor Williams regarding the cost of legal advice to defend against perceived wrongful actions by the Council, you have to wonder why, on the advice of officers, the Council approved the following improved terms of delegated authority on Thursday:

    (iv) The Council includes at 5.3 (a) on Page 115, the words shown in italics;

    “To authorise commencement of legal proceedings and to institute, defend or settle legal proceedings…etc”.

    Decisions on the commencement of legal proceedings on behalf of the Council is now in the hands of unelected officers, without any elected member role or oversight.

    Does this raise internal protectionism to a new unhealthy level? Will members be able to intervene on behalf of constituents? I wonder how this will work in practice?

  • John, I questioned this particular amendment, as proposed by the monitoring officer to the council’s delegations to officers, at the corporate governance committee meeting before full council.

    I don’t agree that it has the effect, as you say, of councillors handing over any more delegation to officers when it comes to commencing legal proceedings.

    Indeed it’s difficult to see why the change of wording was required or what it changes.

    What was added in were the words “to authorise commencement of legal proceedings” whereas I believe, and said at committee, that the original wording “to institute” – which remains in the constitution – covers the same ground.

  • John Hudson

    I expect that lawyers would be only too pleased to offer differing interpretations, opinions and explanations, for a fee.

    What is the purpose of including it?

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