Jacob Williams
Wednesday 5th December, 2018

COUNCIL LEGAL CHIEF’S ‘PLONKER’ SLUR

COUNCIL LEGAL CHIEF’S ‘PLONKER’ SLUR

• COUNTY HALL LEGAL CHIEF BRANDS MEMBER OF THE PUBLIC ‘A PLONKER’
• SECRET INTERNAL MEMO EXPOSES STRATEGY TO MANIPULATE ELECTED-MEMBER SCRUTINY
• TOP OFFICERS CHANGED COUNCIL RULES TO AVOID ADMITTING SCHOOLBOY ERRORS

In an extraordinary set of circumstances JW can reveal how Pembrokeshire County Council’s most senior lawyer – head of legal and committee services Claire Incledon – referred to a member of the public who had been questioning her actions as “a plonker.”

In the internal council memo not intended for public consumption, the subject of Mrs. Incledon’s brutish brush-off was David Edwards, ardent analyst of the authority’s antics.

As I covered on this blog at the end of October, David Edwards regularly submits public questions to full council meetings.

One of those was in July 2018, where he quizzed council leader Cllr. David Simpson over the fairness of the rules on the county’s weekday workers – who may be unable to comply with the requirement to attend meetings so that their question isn’t rejected.

Cllr. Simpson’s pre-prepared response was fatally flawed. Drafted by Mrs. Incledon, it wrongly claimed that Mr. Edwards’ premise was false as there was no requirement in force for public questioners to show their faces at meetings.

I have previously explained on this blog the obvious explanation for this mistake was a simple lack of research (see: Too clever by half.)

‘A load of old cobblers…’

As an experienced public questioner Mr. Edwards knew the attendance requirement was rigorously enforced by council staff – who sought him in the public gallery, asked him to produce ID and jotted down his driving licence number every meeting.

In a bid to set the record straight, Mr. Edwards submitted a new question to the following council meeting in October.

Mr. Edwards’ October question included his 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.”

His question’s preamble also advised Cllr. Simpson that, in future when provided drafts by such: “unreliable sources he should seek a second opinion.”

A bechained Cllr. Aden Brinn alongside Claire Incledon in her court garb

However Mr. Edwards’ efforts were scuppered by the authority’s chairman, Cllr. Aden Brinn, on the grounds that his new question was “substantially the same as a question which has been submitted in the past six months.”

Dissecting Cllr. Brinn’s shaky ground for refusal, Mr. Edwards explained that his July question had been “about the requirement of questioners to attend the meeting,” whilst his new question “is about the incompetence of the Legal Department…”

It was all to no avail because Mr. Edwards was told that Cllr. Brinn wasn’t backing down, and furthermore: “that he is not minded to put before Council offensive comments about chief officers.”

Talk about double standards!

It all sounded very much like a classic attempt to avoid admission or accountability. And when it comes to cover-ups we all know Haverfordwest’s Kremlin-on-Cleddau has some world-class operators.

The rejected referral

When I learned what had gone on I referred the matter to the authority’s corporate overview and scrutiny committee.

My submission set out the timeline of events and my concerns, chiefly: that the leader gave an incorrect answer, that it had been drafted by officers who should have known better, and that no attempt had been made at the authority in the months since the July meeting to correct what there had been ample opportunity to realise was “a load of old cobblers!”

However the chairman of the scrutiny committee, Pembroke Dock councillor Brian Hall, refused my request to add this matter to his agenda on spurious grounds.

He didn’t even inform me directly but had a committee officer email me to say: “the Chair does not consider that the matter falls within the remit of the Committee.”

This legalistic reasoning was so patently wrong, and so unlike anything Bri would cook up himself that I immediately smelt the strategy underpinning it.

I sussed that chairman Bri was being advised by council lawyers with an unhealthy bias against its appearance on the scrutiny agenda.

I figured that he was hinging his decision on the suggestion within my submission that committee members might wish to scrutinise Cllr. Aden Brinn’s role in the saga.

As council chairman, Cllr. Brinn is not accountable to any of the council’s five overview and scrutiny (O&S) committees.

I set out why I thought Cllr. Hall’s refusal of my referral was not only wrong but deliberately narrow-minded to the extent that it was being “used as an excuse to prevent scrutiny of what I can readily imagine is bound to be an embarrassing matter for some at County Hall to see debated by a committee.”

At this early stage I also put on record in my email – whose recipients included Cllr. Hall, PCC chief executive Ian Westley, and head of legal Claire Incledon – my further concern over:

“Mrs. Incledon’s involvement in my attempt to scrutinise what was, I now know, a document that she had researched and authored.”

By email Mrs. Incledon had earlier referred to her two discussions on the topic with council leader Cllr. Simpson.

I explained how, in the interests of probity Mrs. Incledon should have recused herself from the matter entirely: “along with any advice she may have given which resulted in Cllr. Hall’s decision to reject this topic for scrutiny on the committee’s agenda.”

As you’ll see, my hunch that there was an active attempt to interfere with my quest for scrutiny was to be well founded.

My protests fell on deaf ears as I was told by the committee officer that my only method of challenging Cllr. Hall’s refusal was by submitting an appeal to chief exec Mr. Westley and legal head Mrs. Incledon: “whose joint decision on the inclusion or otherwise of the matter shall be final.”

Unfortunately I had no faith in Mr. Westley coming to a different view than Cllr. Hall so I chose not to appeal.

I did, however, ask Mr. Westley if I did appeal, whether he agreed with me that it would be inappropriate for Mrs. Incledon to play any part with him in deciding if a topic she was up to her neck in should be scrutinised at committee.

In fact Cllr. Hall has since confirmed to me that Mrs. Incledon did indeed advise him in taking his decision to refuse my request.

Some days later Mr. Westley responded:

“In light of the circumstances you have highlighted, should an appeal be made, I would confer with the Monitoring Officer in this instance.”

This did nothing to change my decision not to appeal.

Despite Cllr. Hall’s November 8th refusal of my request to scrutinise the matter at his committee, I happen to be one of its members – and we met days later, where I got what I was after.

At our 15th November meeting I convinced fellow committee members to approve placing this on our next meeting’s agenda: January 24th 2019.

It’s good to talk

I’m always indebted to my readers’ comments which, over the years have added much to the discussions of the day.

And so it was with some surprise that the aforementioned David Edwards trawled through the comments of my last blogpost on this topic where his interest was piqued by a comment posted by a Mr. Mike Hart.

Mr. Hart had recounted his own experience of submitting a public question to the October 2018 council meeting, including detail Mr. Edwards thought could only mean suspicious changes had been made to the council’s rules and guidance for public questioners.

So Mr. Edwards took up his query with the council, by email, and was told:

“This guidance was amended in September to better reflect the wording in the Constitution.”

Like the best scrutineers, Mr. Edwards was interested in the detail – and wanted to know the nature of the changes that had been made to the public questions guidance. He enquired further and was told:

“There is no requirement for you to attend the meeting for your question to be put.”

This was almost unbelievable.

The fix is in

I reproduce below parts of two entirely separate documents – the question submission form and the council’s guidance note – previously published on PCC’s website until this furore erupted.

As you can see they are both unequivocal on the point that a member of the public submitting a question to a council meeting has to be present for the question to be put:

So when the top brass at County Hall realised they were coming in for criticism for drafting a duff answer to Mr. Edwards’ July question – the ‘load of old cobblers’ as he puts it – they went and quietly changed the council’s rules to make it look like it had been right all along.

In other words, instead of holding their hands up, some people in power – not councillors – implemented rule changes to back up the July ‘cobblers!’

Anybody who believes the culture of Pembrokeshire County Council, or the instincts of its top brass has improved beyond recognition is, I’m afraid to say, either ignorant or delusional.

But believe it or not, that admission – that the rules had been quietly changed to suit – is arguably only the third-most disturbing revelation.

JW has been privy to the chain of correspondence in which Claire Incledon first learns that Mr. Edwards is back on the prowl, probing the council’s clandestine rule-changes.

Upon learning that Dave was sniffing around again, she wrote:

“Jeez the man is a plonker. Although I do wonder if we provide a full response to this whether it will take the heat out of the Corp O+S referral from cllr JW.”

I understand Mr. Edwards has a penchant for supermarket wine but I don’t think this was the intended reference!

No doubt serious questions must be asked of the way a senior council officer would refer in this way to a member of the public engaging with his council.

And how public servant Mrs. Incledon feels comfortable using such terms in writing – even informally – among fellow senior colleagues.

Is this acceptable? Is it the norm?

Interestingly among the recipients of Mrs. Incledon’s intemperate outburst was the authority’s monitoring officer, Claire Jones – the statutory postholder charged with upholding the highest ethics and moral standards at the public body.

‘The two Claires,’ as they are known, work very closely alongside each other at County Hall, increasingly of late drafting committee reports together, an arrangement some councillors feel doesn’t help maintain a public perception of separation of powers.

However it was the bit about how Mrs. Incledon had in mind to “take the heat out of” my own move to bring the whole matter before Cllr. Hall’s O&S committee that raises broader questions over County Hall’s present culture.

Mrs. Incledon clearly pays more than a casual interest in thwarting my efforts to scrutinise a topic which had stemmed from her own sloppiness.

It’s interesting to note that she authored this email on 20th November – almost a week after I had got my way in placing the topic on the O&S committee’s January 2019 agenda.

So the council’s most senior lawyer not only involved herself in rejecting my efforts to get this before committee, but continued pursuing her interest after I had gone through hoops to get it on the agenda.

In tactical mode, even at this early stage, Mrs. Incledon was plotting how to deal with the thorny subject when it comes up in January.

And she was able to do all this, after chief executive Ian Westley had agreed with me it was an affair she should steer clear from.

Occasionally councillors are criticised for subservience to unaccountable bureaucrats, but this shows what PCC scrutineers – whether councillors or members of the public – face routinely.

With shenanigans like this going on behind the scenes, especially at the hands of such high-level officers many councillors depend on for impartial guidance, there’s clearly no level playing field at County Hall.

Bryn Parry-Jones left the chief executive’s office a good few years ago now, and it’s worth noting how his successor and present chief executive, Ian Westley, intensely dislikes any criticism of the culture at County Hall under his headship.

He must surely realise the significance of this – and I think the heat is only going to rise, as it’s among other not dissimilar topics I believe will boil over in the new year.


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16 Comments...

  • Amy

    Considering the many problems which face Pembrokeshire residents and businesses, would it be too much to expect of an elected local authority to direct all of its energies into representing and supporting the county, rather than the sickening saga of corruption, in party fighting, ego trips, lies, subterfuge, mind games and generally feathering their own nests?

    Why do you all put up with this?

  • Patrick

    I think we know who is the real “plonker”.

    This email could be a Ratner moment. “The Plonker” tag may from now on become a popular nickname!

  • Flashbang

    One can only assume that the reason this corrupt, incompetent, self-serving council hasn’t been put into special measures is because the people making the decisions about special measures are in the same category as the aforementioned. That would be the Government I believe.

    How do you bring PCC to the attention of the correct authorities in the first place?

    How do you get an investigation started, who do you need to talk to? It better not be the local plod as that would be too much of a Catch 22.

  • Mark

    Amy, many councillors may be happy for things to continue plodding along like this, but I think it’s probably fairer (even to the worst of them) to say councillors are powerless to stop or punish immoral officer conduct.

    I know they are elected but this is just the dire state of UK local government. Just look at Caerphilly Council.

    As councillors like Jacob Williams are in the very small minority in looking out for these kind of legal/procedural but no less important issues, things are unlikely to suddenly change for the better.

    At least we the public are fortunate to have these revelations, it’s better than not knowing at all.

    The underlying culture of the place needs to be addressed promptly by the leadership, where I would say the chief executive has more responsibility than the leader and cabinet who seem to function well with members in general, even the trouble makers!

    Your point that this effort would be better spent on other matters is arguable, but if the evident officer conduct/culture issue isn’t a pressing matter for you personally then you can’t really complain about the fact it needs addressing.

    In other words it’s the same people who cause it who are going to have to work hardest to sort it out, so they are in effect doubly to blame, firstly for the bad culture itself and secondly for having to spend effort mending it at a time when there are other critical priorities facing the county and the council.

    What a mess.

  • Mike Hart

    Jacob, I have just located the following: The Code of Conduct (Qualifying Local Government Employees) (Wales) Order 2001.

    You would expect the principal legal officer to be aware of this requirement and be forthright in enforcing it.

    However Mrs Incledon’s quote “Although I do wonder if we provide a full response to this…” rather suggests that this is not the case and the protection of reputation again takes precedence.

    Code of Conduct

    General Principles

    1. The public is entitled to expect the highest standards of conduct from all qualifying employees of relevant authorities. The role of such employees is to serve their employing authority in providing advice, implementing its policies, and delivering services to the local community. In performing their duties, they must act with integrity, honesty, impartiality and objectivity.

    Treatment of Information

    10. Openness in the dissemination of information and decision making should be the norm in relevant authorities. However, certain information may be confidential or sensitive and therefore not appropriate for a wide audience. Where confidentiality is necessary to protect the privacy or other rights of individuals or bodies, information should not be released to anyone other than a member, relevant authority employee or other person who is entitled to receive it, or needs to have access to it for the proper discharge of their functions. Nothing in this Code can be taken as overriding existing statutory or common law obligations to keep certain information confidential, or to divulge certain information.

  • Cllr Paul Dowson

    Well done Cllr for having the courage of your convictions and for speaking about this.

    Long story, but some months ago I was quoted in the press for telling the head of legal that “I didn’t give a f*** about her legal opinion”.

    It stemmed from a situation where a ‘clearing of the air’ meeting between myself and the chief exec was kind of hi-jacked by Ms Incledon.

    At this meeting Ms Incledon spent the entire time quoting from the councillor code of conduct and appeared to have her own agenda which simply turned into a competition between us to find out who had the biggest pair.

    I think the plan was for me to be put in my place. I did later apologise in writing for something published in the papers beyond my control just to draw a line under the matter, however she was having none of it and requested we meet to discuss it further.

    We never did meet as I felt it wasn’t going to be a good idea.

    I see exactly where you are coming from on this and I’ve sensed a need to control from certain quarters.

  • Mark

    I think you’re right Patrick! Does anybody know the collective term for plonkers?

  • Dave Edwards

    Jacob, I can add something that exemplifies the “officers rule” culture within PCC and also shows the duplicity of the Legal Department.

    Following the refusal of the Chairman to accept my “load of cobblers” question, I appealed and copied it to the Leader Cllr David Simpson on October 4th.

    On 7th October the Leader replied – “I immediately sent it [an email I sent him after the July meeting] to the Chief Executive for an explanation and for him to reply, but now it looks as though he did not. I am sorry”.

    I am astounded that Ian Westley cannot even be bothered to respond to the Leader’s instruction!

    As this reply from the Leader was dated 7th October, clearly nobody had told him nor anyone else that the web page guidance note was changed on 17th September!

  • Patrick

    Mark, I think we know the word you are after, it begins with a P and has six letters.

  • Malcolm Calver

    Be careful Jacob, they will have you up before the standards committee (kangaroo court) for showing disrespect to council officers/employees.

    Sadly we have officers/employees conniving behind the scenes whilst at the same time Budget Bob Kilmister the botchit specialist increasing the council tax yearly.

  • Pembs. Exile

    Jacob I cannot believe what I am reading.

    If the remarks contained in the internal memo, not for public consumption, is in the public domain by whatever means, and when the member of the public referred to as a ‘Plonker’ can now be identified, and if the matter is not investigated fully by the council then I think I would, as an individual, be considering an immediate complaint to the appropriate professional regulatory body.

  • Quill

    The ‘Plonker’ part is bad but the underhanded attempts to subvert councillors and changing of the rules to suit is in a different league.

    If a councillor acted this way we would see it at the Standards Committee and the public expects open justice for these actions by senior officers too.

    If I could ask a question to David Edwards, have you had any admissions or denials from anyone at the council yet?

  • John Hudson

    I thought that council officers were there to offer lay members impartial advice that they were obliged to “have regard to” but not required to slavishly follow.

    There may, after all, be political considerations beyond the remit of officers that members, in their representational role, are obliged to take into account.

    That said, the council, and members, must always act reasonably within the law.

  • Welshman 23

    Here we go again, yet more controversial shenanigans going on at the Kremlin. It would seem that the hierarchy need a good clear out and bring in people that know how to run a business.

    If a councillor or member of the public used the word plonker referring to a council employee then I am sure action would be taken.

    If as suggested this word was used by a council officer then a full and proper investigation needs to take place immediately and action needs to be taken against that individual/individuals. Using this type of language is disrespectful.

  • Mike Hart

    Jacob, it’s rather ironic that a draft ‘Employee Code of Conduct’ is on the agenda of the next council meeting.

    Not only does the council appear to be subverting the powers of the chief police officer who has the discretionary powers to disclose if an arrest requires disclosure to an employer (Home Office Common Law Police Disclosure Guidance for employers and regulatory bodies) but seems to have turned a very sound piece of legislation (The Code of Conduct Order 2001) into more of a stick with which to keep the majority of its employees under control whilst those in “higher places” who think they are above the law will carry on as usual.

    It does little to embed a culture required by the code that “The role of such employees is to serve their employing authority in providing advice, implementing its policies, and delivering services to the local community. In performing their duties, they must act with integrity, honesty, impartiality and objectivity.”

    It makes it all the more ironic that the principal legal officer who is probably required to be in charge of reviewing the document appears to have acted in a way that seems so contrary to its basic principles.

    I trust the document will go to scrutiny for consideration.

  • Dai Trump

    Jacob, as the carpet between Ian Westley’s and Claire Incledon’s offices must be totally worn out now by their numerous consultations to try and stay one step ahead of you are you going to have a whip round in the members’ room to replace it?

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