Jacob Williams
Wednesday 31st October, 2018

Inside man (or woman?)

Inside man (or woman?)

Those paying attention to Pembrokeshire County Council’s full council meeting earlier this month will have been rewarded with a juicy revelation.

Finance cabinet member Cllr. Bob Kilmister confirmed how the Pembrokeshire Herald had been leaked a copy of a secret internal document outlining prospective budget and service cuts and closures.

What I did know was that it wasn’t a document that had ever been circulated to me or the dozens of other mere backbenchers like me.

This raised the stakes as it strongly suggested that the list of potential leakers was smaller than with previous leaks, which could (at least, in theory) make it easier to identify the culprit.

Following the meeting I spoke to some sources to gain a better idea of what had gone on with this document which I’m told was not finalised but a rough internal working draft of some options, including radical ones, which might be on the cards as the council faces ever-tightening finances.

I was most interested to learn how ultra exclusive the leaked memo’s distribution list was.

I’m told at the time it was leaked it had only been shared with cabinet members (nine people) and a much greater number (unspecified) of senior council officers and their secretaries.

Cabinet members are said to have been unhappy about the leak and, whilst we can’t discount the possibility it was by one of their own, I’m told the general sentiment in the cabinet room is that the breach was made by a staffer.

On previous occasions where it has looked like a councillor has leaked documentation to the media, some senior council officers have made no secret of their low opinions of such a deed.

The last high profile leak came in March this year, when confidential council papers relating to paedophile ex-councillor Dai Boswell were anonymously splashed all over Facebook.

I reckon the top brass at County Hall are reasonably confident which councillor made that leak – especially considering that it’s somewhat of an open secret in the members’ tearoom at County Hall.

Alas, without any evidence, it’s mere conjecture – which would never stand up to the scrutiny of an ombudsman referral.

It will be interesting to see if any efforts are expended to identify the source of this latest leak, and what, if anything, they reveal.

Too clever by half

The author of that other website hadn’t posted since mid June before he resumed blogging last week.

Probably something to do with ‘supply and demand.’ Or maybe just demand.

Although it pains me to say it, I recommend a visit over to the dark side because Old Grumpy’s latest offering spills the finer details on another classic from PCC’s lawyerly lash-ups case file, which the public hasn’t been privy to – until now!

One of the rules in place for questions submitted to full council meetings by members of the public is that the questioner must attend the meeting.

As regular full council meetings always begin at 10am, this rule precludes all but those who are able to make themselves available for the morning questions slot.

One of those who has made good use of the public questions facility over the past couple of years is David Edwards.

At the July full council meeting Mr. Edwards tabled a public question asking if the leader, Cllr. David Simpson, agreed with him that the requirement for public questioners to be present at the meeting disadvantaged working people.

The question was ‘answered’ by Cllr. Simpson reading from a sheet typed-up for him by an uncredited officer.

However the pre-prepared spiel was badly flawed, might I suggest, because whoever drafted it was being too clever by half.

The crafty reply turned the tables on Mr. Edwards, to suggest that the premise of his question was mistaken, as there was in fact no such requirement for public questioners to attend the meeting as he had claimed.

As someone who could be described as a pedant, JW knows a thing or two about splitting hairs – and I think this has helped me to work out how this ‘too clever by half’ response was concocted.

My theory is that it was authored – and I don’t know by whom – following sole consultation with the council’s constitution, the relevant part of which states:

4.9.8 Members of the public must attend personally and identify themselves to the Head of Legal and Democratic Services prior to the commencement of the meeting and if they do not do so then the question will not be put at the meeting.

Now, whilst I happen to know it was the intention when drafting this section of the constitution that members of the public had to attend on the morning of the meeting, that isn’t strictly what the wording of the constitution says.

The strict constructionists among my readers will have noticed that, all the constitution says is that public questioners have to present themselves at an unspecified time beforehand – and that’s the ‘clever’ way in which Mr. Edwards’ question was disposed of.

However, Mr. Edwards had made no mention of the constitution, only the “rules.”

The fatal flaw in the clever response to Mr. Edwards’ question would have been avoided with a bare minimum of research.

The “rules” Mr. Edwards had referred to state in no uncertain terms that members of the public who submit questions must present themselves on the day of the meeting – as he well knew by submitting his question.

This is also a requirement everybody who had ever submitted a public question had been told to follow.

I have been able to find this stipulation: a) on the council’s website, b) within the form the council provides for submitting questions, and c) in correspondence submitted to questioners.

It couldn’t be clearer!

Old Grumpy then goes on to recount how Mr. Edwards’ attempt to table a new question to the October meeting – to rectify July’s duff response – was rebuffed by the council’s chairman, Cllr. Aden Brinn, with one of his grounds being that he was: “not minded to put before council offensive comments about chief officers”!

This must have been Mr. Edwards’ claim that what the leader had been provided by officers to read out in July was “a load of old cobblers and should be ignored” and his suggestion that, when the leader is provided drafts in future by such: “unreliable sources he should seek a second opinion.”

The chairman’s refusal to allow Mr. Edwards’ question to the October meeting is at the least questionable, but the duff answer given to Mr. Edwards’ simple July question is particularly poor form.

It smacks of the sort of sloppiness that cropped up earlier in the year, in this similar incident I exclusively revealed in which a councillor was wrongly deprived from even tabling a full council question.

I haven’t heard yet if it will be included on its agenda, but I have made a formal move to refer the Edwards matter to the next meeting (November 15th) of the authority’s corporate overview and scrutiny committee.

My request, submitted by email last night, concludes with what I think the committee should consider and address:

A) How such a factually inaccurate and misleading response could be authored by a council officer who should have already known, or have been easily able to establish, that the premise of Mr. Edwards’ question, i.e. the requirement for public questioners to attend the meeting, was accurate.

B) That the leader would read out a response which so starkly contradicted the question put by an experienced public questioner, without confirming its accuracy.

C) That the authority would allow such an obviously misleading response, made at its most senior public forum, to be left unaddressed for three months (and counting.)

D) The council chairman’s grounds for refusing to allow the question Mr. Edwards submitted to the October council meeting in his bid to clarify the inaccurate response given to his July question. Was it substantially the same as the previous question, does the chairman have discretion to refuse to allow public questions on the grounds that they may contain “offensive comments about chief officers,” and if so, does the committee believe the chairman was able to conclude that the comments were “offensive?”

E) To consider the issue raised by Mr. Edwards in his July question, i.e. the requirement for public questioners to attend the meeting, and to come to a view on whether this requirement, which is currently enforced, should remain in place.

I propose that the committee invites the authority’s leader, Cllr. David Simpson, and its chairman, Cllr. Aden Brinn, to attend the scrutiny committee to assist members in considering this item of business.


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6 Comments...

  • Malcolm Calver

    May I suggest the action of the chairman Cllr Brinn is a disgrace and an affront to, in particular Mr Edwards on a personal level, and secondly residents of Pembrokeshire by blatantly obstructing the right of free speech by open debate.

    Whilst not wishing to condone offensive comments, vigorous questioning of both county councillors and taxpayer paid employees is essential and long overdue.

    The account given in regard to council leader Cllr Simpson reading from a flawed speech, prepared by an unnamed council employee, seems to indicate that Cllr Simpson has become a stooge of the establishment at County Hall which he promised to resist on election to his position.

  • Flashbang

    The Russians have got more chance of reforming the real Kremlin than the people of the county getting honest local government out of PCC.

  • John Hudson

    I also asked a public question about the proposed increases to the Parc Gwyn Crematorium charges, as approved by cabinet.

    These charges were to generate income, not for the crematorium but for other environmental and public protection purposes.

    While the answer quoted additional information from a WAO report on income generation, it overlooked and did not offer any comment on the WAO’s advice that surplus income from discretionary burial and cremation charges could not be used for other purposes.

    Full legal advice is to be presented to cabinet in the report following the results of “consultation”.

    It is to be hoped that at its third attempt, our open and transparent council will provide full legal information for the benefit of cabinet members.

    Who knows, it may also provide details on the council’s own financial position for consideration as would appear to be required by its approved full cost recovery policy.

  • Pembs. Exile

    I notice that OG on the other website recently blogged that “you were on to the Pembroke Dock roofing fiasco”.

    Anything to report yet on the ongoing police investigation?

  • Mike Hart

    Jacob, I thought I might offer a view on the questions issue.

    I have received the following in an email from no less than Ian Westley:

    “Whilst you have the right to raise legitimate concerns regarding any services you may be in receipt of, the council will not be investing further time in re-investigating and responding to issues you persistently raise in relation to the Whistleblowing and Grievance Policy Procedures.”

    It would appear I have touched a nerve when asking him if part time council staff are being treated fairly under the Part Time Workers (Prevention of less favourable treatment) regulations, their contracts of employment and the specific requirements of the council’s own whistleblower procedure when it was admitted that many of these staff were unable to access the whistleblower training.

    On the issue of the Dave Edwards questions, I have some sympathy with David Simpson.

    When he has to read out answers to public questions it must be impossible for him to know if the answer prepared for him is the truth and nothing but the truth.

    Under his administration I feel there is improvement over previous administrations. He clearly is not prepared to go to the lengths the previous administration did to conceal potential wrong doing regarding grant schemes and the like.

    What we seem to have here is the persistent PCC embedded cultural problem. Their priority is to protect reputation at all costs and never admit they made a mistake. This takes priority over everything.

    As probably the only public questioner not to have been required to submit identification on the day of the council meeting, I do not agree with the view that the internet “rules” on questions take priority over the constitution. It is the constitution that must take precedence.

    The problem appears to be that, in line with the ‘we never admit mistakes’ approach, the officer advising David Simpson did not inform him there was a problem that the internet rules did not conform with the constitution or they did not look deep enough to find out where the previous approach came from.

    However when David Edwards submitted his second question that would show this problem officers seem to have reverted to the “we must never be seen to mislead or make a mistake stratagem.”

    It seems some individuals within higher levels of the council might also be trying to take advantage of the situation.

    In rejecting the subsequent question on one set of grounds and then when it is made to comply, rejected it on another different set appears deliberately provocative and unacceptable.

    It is the potential for manipulation of the process that is of concern together with the rejection of questions that are embarrassing or worse. The improved openness, accountability and transparency that the asking of questions by members of the public provides will be lost.

    These attempts to do away with or dilute the democratic process need to be questioned but getting an honest answer I suspect will be a problem.

    Thank you Jacob for raising these issues.

  • Pembs. Exile, nothing to report I’m afraid, however the corporate scrutiny committee tomorrow (Thursday) morning will be considering the several-week delay it took full council’s complaint over the police force’s investigation to be sent to the police watchdog.

    Mike, thank you for your comment – I think many would agree with what you say however I got the impression that, although you didn’t say it, you believe that I was suggesting here that the rules the council publishes surrounding public questions should outweigh the requirements as set out in the constitution.

    I didn’t suggest that, I don’t believe that, and nor did I make any personal opinion – I was merely repeating the key fact which made the response to David Edwards’ question factually wrong.

    That is: that David Edwards had premised his question upon the ‘rules’ as the council had presented and enforced, and which he had complied with on the numerous times he had submitted public questions before the July meeting.

    Might I suggest that the reason you weren’t asked to identify yourself on the morning of the October council meeting, to which you had submitted your own public question, may have had more to do with the fact that it had, by that time, become readily apparent to those in charge that the answer given to David Edwards’ July question was wrong – so from that point on there would be an incentive to apply the rules in accordance with what Cllr. Simpson had said, i.e. that questioners weren’t required to identify themselves there and then.

    On reflection, having re-read the email you received from Mr. Westley, perhaps the more likely explanation is that you are already sufficiently well known in County Hall!

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