Jacob Williams
Thursday 30th January, 2020

Grants probe postponed

Grants probe postponed

Several people have been asking me what’s happening with Pembrokeshire County Council’s audit committee’s grants probe.

This is the one that’s supposed to be looking into internal antics and deficiencies relating to the well-publicised and long-running fraud allegations in PCC-administered property restoration grant schemes, commonly known as the ‘Pembroke Dock grants scandal.’

At our last meeting, on 21st November, audit committee members agreed some terms for this internal review.

We also set about the formal legal process of ‘requiring’ the attendance of certain relevant council officials for questioning, and ‘inviting’ those who have already retired or otherwise ceased to be employed by the authority.

Dates were proposed for our hearings – and confirmed for: 20th and 29th January, and 4th February.

But in an abrupt development just before Christmas it was all put on hold, without prior consultation of members, by the audit committee’s chairman, Conservative councillor Tony Baron.

In his December 23rd email informing us of his decision, Cllr. Baron said he had been advised by Claires Incledon (legal chief) and Jones (monitoring officer) – known in County Hall as ‘the two Claires’ – that:

“…if the outcome of the Council appointed Working Group was that a prosecution was possible, it would be unwise to conduct interviews of involved individuals at the Audit Committee meeting planned for 20 January 2020 as it could jeopardise any future proceedings undertaken by PCC.”

The ‘working group’ is a reference to an entirely separate committee, effectively – of which I’m also a member – set up by council for a specific purpose.

It’s investigating the possibility of the council taking out its own prosecution in relation to the grant fraud allegations which the Crown Prosecution Service famously dropped last summer they say due to, among other things, ‘insufficient evidence.’

Without revealing any specifics about this working group’s activity or progress to date, I can say that its remit is ongoing, and an external barrister is being consulted.

Cllr. Baron’s email says:

“…I believe that we need to await the full and final opinion of Counsel before commencing the Audit Committee’s review. I have therefore decided that the Audit Committee meeting scheduled to start the review on 20 January should be postponed. I am keen that the review is undertaken as soon as possible as I suspect that lessons from this case have not been fully learnt. However, the advice is clear that no action should be taken that could affect the outcome of any possible proceedings.”

The audit committee’s ordinary meeting of February 4th is still going ahead. Its agenda has been published, where the only relative item – for which we only have the title, no written report – is:

“11. Working Group on Grant Scheme Update and Next Steps.”

The working group’s formation and activity is wholly unconnected to the audit committee. It is a creature of full council, so the way it seems to have found its way as a titled agenda item before the audit committee is interesting.

Whilst I might agree that the audit committee should avoid jeopardising a council prosecution – if that’s a process councillors resolve to undertake – it’s worth noting that no decision on taking a prosecution is even close to being made.

And, that was exactly the state of play in November when the audit committee, during a meeting personally attended by the monitoring officer, set its now-cancelled set of internal review hearing dates.

In other words, the chairman’s unilateral decision to postpone the audit committee’s investigation – on the advice of senior council officers – is somewhat confusing, especially against a materially unchanged backdrop.

I say this as an audit committee member who has to accept the chair’s decision – I can only imagine how it looks to those outside!

Bolt from the blue?

Ahead of last month’s general election I was talking to a Labour party member friend of mine.

He seemed to find it difficult to contemplate that the public could overlook Boris Johnson’s track record and character flaws, and renew his Downing Street lease five more years.

I’m not saying he thought Jeremy Corbyn was going to run away with it either, but in the event he was surprised by quite the stuffing Jezza’s Labour received in the country’s first winter general election in decades.

When pushed, my comrade friend tentatively predicted that Labour would hold the Tories to a hung parliament and, I say, the country to ransom: over another ‘people’s vote’ EU referendum.

If proof was needed that voters are quite prepared to overlook a candidate for high office’s less than stellar conduct, then there’s surely nowhere better to look than the 2016 US presidential election.

And not just the fact that Donald Trump won it, but that the two main parties in that election had both fielded candidates – selected through primary elections, no less – whose personal flaws, we might call them, were already widely known by voters.

That is to say, they were two people whose flaws were known long before they made the ticket, and not exposed as a result of post-selection muck-raking – which went on in spectacular fashion, nonetheless!

So, no, I wasn’t at all surprised to see how the “bumbling yet lovable rogue, witty and self-deprecating” BoJo steered the Tories to such a strong and widespread victory.

I think the country, wherever they stood on Brexit, at least knew clearly what his and his party’s message was, even though the most hardened Leave voter surely cringed every time a frontbencher crow-barred in “…let’s get Brexit done…” at any opportunity during the campaign.

Many were so sick of the parliamentary gridlock and failure to focus on domestic issues in the last few years that it helped make up their minds – a decision aided by the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn as alternative PM, as the Labour party now knows.

In the week before last month’s election I said to various of my anorak friends that the Tories would win by a majority of 15-80 seats.

Now admittedly I gave myself a wildly generous range – I said such indulgence was necessary due to the volatility of polling, these days!

But I think I claw back some credit for 80 – that being both the exact size of the majority, and a figure contemplated by no serious pollster, nor senior Tory, come to think of it.

The December 2019 general election result made even the most ardent remainers accept defeat in their efforts to stop Brexit, now just hours away.

And to many of those living in so-called (and somewhat clichéd) social media ‘echo chambers,’ exposed almost exclusively to like-minded views, it ought to have led to the reluctant realisation that Twitter is nowhere close to being representative of the country’s politics.

I suspect it won’t.

The outcome and the shock with which it was met by some was interesting, but it isn’t really anything new – I recall similar reactions and even protests after the 2010, 2015 and 2017 UK general elections. But this one, sealing the Brexit fate, had such high stakes.

That this high stakes election ended up giving the supposedly ‘unfit’ Boris Johnson and his Tories such a strong mandate to govern for the next five years, is all the more remarkable.

And if Donald Trump gets re-elected later this year – which, at this early stage, I’d say is more likely than not – then 2020 isn’t going to be easy for the echo chamber-dwellers!

Uncooperative individuals

As a councillor I’m signed up to no end of mailing lists by companies offering their ‘professional development’ services and the like.

Training in this, courses on that, seminars about the other – these unsolicited communications are better known as spam.

During a clearout of junk emails the other day, one from a Stockport-based training company caught my attention.

The sexy title of the seminar they were touting for councillors and council staff is: “How to Handle Uncooperative People and Challenging Situations at Work.”

Now between you and me, I can only assume this correspondence to JW was misdirected – but I read on, nonetheless.

Inside the email things got a bit more blunt, as this seminar is referred to by the stronger term: “Dealing With Difficult People At Work.”

Accordingly:

“This course will provide you with practical tools for handling difficult situations in a positive way – even with the most uncooperative of individuals.”

Sign me up!

The ‘facilitator’ of this event – who I can pay to see in Glasgow, London, Birmingham or Manchester – is said to be “the author of several books including ‘Managing Difficult People At Work’ and ‘The Business Strategy Toolkit’.

It would be interesting to know how much experience our “independent trainer, coach, facilitator and speaker” friend has in dealing with difficult customers – as the brave price for his informative seminar is £560, excluding VAT!

One wonders if this professional-trainer-cum-author’s other titles include ‘I Saw Them Coming,’ and its prequel: ‘How To Get Rich, Quick!’


Share this...
Share on FacebookTweet about this on Twitter

15 Comments...

  • Aaron Carey

    If we both go we could car share and ask for two for £1,000?

    My question is though, what happens if you are the difficult person? Do you get a refund?! 😆

  • Flashbang

    This looks to me as an outsider that the audit committee’s investigation is once again being railroaded.

    You’d think that officers would want transparency to be paramount in leaving no stone unturned to get to the bottom of the grants scandal.

  • Welshman 23

    Another one swept under the magic carpet.

    When will all the bad publicity end?

  • John Hudson

    I thought that the Wales Audit office declined to investigate the grants scandal while the police were investigating.

    They have a branch that investigates and reports on corporate governance arrangements.

  • Daiwhy

    Dear Jacob, Mike Stoddard has stated many times he has a file of evidence and he would bring a private prosecution?

    Why has he changed his mind? Why is he now expecting the tax payer to pay for this? Why does he not get on and get justice?

    Why did he indicate it was all so easy, when it appears to be anything but?

    Why is the council paying for another barrister, how much is it costing?

    There may have been an issue here, but it is long gone. Time to move on and save the council some money.

    I think you and Mike Stoddard just make empty promises, and like the sound of your own voices.

    Dai.

  • Mark

    It is disappointing that Audit Committee members were not consulted by the chairman or even by the two Claires.

    If there really is a potential legal jeopardy problem then there may have been a different option for the review, rather than halting it altogether.

    It is possible that the lawyers and chairman are erring on the side of caution, but I can’t help wondering if there is more than meets the eye.

  • Malcolm Calver

    It begs the question what have these officers both present and past got to hide?

    The chances of getting those who were involved in the fiasco but who have since taken early retirement or resigned to appear, I would suggest is nil, but the best of luck as you will need it.

    As for the proposed training course, otherwise known in this case as “professional development”, remember the old saying “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach”, but I am sure if you attended you would receive some sort of certificate to hang on the wall at home.

  • John Hudson

    Just a thought in passing, do “the two Claires”, being the council’s legal advisers, have interests to declare when continuing to advise the council on this matter?

  • John Hudson

    Why are there two councillor-led investigations?

    The one authorised by council as a Working Group, may not be backed by legislation and officers may not be obliged to attend and give evidence. Counsel has been engaged to advise this one.

    Whereas, the Audit Committee one is held under legislative powers given to the committee and officers are required by legislation to attend and give evidence, unless by doing so they may incriminate themselves.

    In this event they must still attend, under the Code of Conduct, but need not answer questions.

    The council’s legal advisers, who are advising the Audit Committee, have suggested that this investigation postpones, until the first one has the benefit of Counsel’s advice. Given the council’s legal record in seeking external advice at every possible hint of contention, what may we infer by this course of action and the Chairman’s decision to accept the council’s officers’ advice?

    Of course, the first investigation could benefit from officers’ evidence required to be provided to the second.

  • Dai, I’m sure Mike will come along and respond to your questions, or ‘feed the troll,’ but I might suggest that nothing that has happened, no actions taken by council, and nothing to my knowledge Mike has said, is contradictory or to the exclusion of anything that you have said.

    What you’ve anonymously espoused (“…nothing to see here, move on!”) may be your opinion, but you also have to contend with the fact that the formation of the council working group, to investigate the possibility for the council to take its own prosecution, was approved by an overwhelmingly strong, cross-party vote of councillors.

    Indeed, of those present for the vote on 10th October, 2019, only four failed to support this bid to, as you might put it, see if the council is able to: “get on and get justice.”

    In fact, because a recorded vote was requisitioned, I can even tell you their names.

    You might note that they are all very senior councillors from the ‘independent’ group which ran the council for the entirety of the previous council term, which are the relevant scandal periods.

    They were councillors: Jamie Adams – who voted against, and councillors John Davies, Brian Hall and David Pugh – who abstained.

    Interesting company, Dai!

  • What I actually wrote regarding private prosecution was

    “I still have vast files of evidence tucked away in the shed and my next decision is whether to try to launch a private prosecution, or turn it into a book, or both.”

    It requires a great deal of creativity on Daiwhy’s part to interpret that to mean that I have “stated many times” that I have “a file of evidence and [he] would bring a private prosecution?”

    In actual fact, bringing a private prosecution is no simple matter because it requires the consent of the Attorney General, while PCC has a statutory right to prosecute by virtue of S 123 of the Local Government Act 1972.

    With regard to cost, PCC is already £309,000 in the black; that being the amount Mr McCosker has paid back (£189,000) and foregone (£120,000) following my revelations.

    And that doesn’t include any savings flowing from introduction of more robust systems for administering the grant schemes.

  • Flashbang

    Get CCTV installed to watch your shed Mike, as it may burn down.

    I’m guessing the subsequent police investigation will come to the conclusion that it was: A. Lightning, B. Spontaneous combustion, C. A lit cigarette from a passing motorist. D. A firework. E. A stray ember from the Australian bushfires.

  • John Hudson

    It seems that aspects of Haverfordwest THI 1 are to be included in the Audit Committee investigation.

    You may have noticed posts in Pembrokeshire Council Watch Forum about this scheme. How can I raise issues that I have had for a long time about the High Street car park project with the Committee for consideration?

  • Mike Edwards

    Mike Stoddart says (in part): “And that doesn’t include any savings flowing from introduction of more robust systems for administering the grant schemes.”

    If only we could all share Old Grumpy’s touching faith in the perspicacity of the Development Directorate!

  • Michael Hart

    Jacob, is there any reason why the audit committee couldn’t start its review now under an arrangement where the initial evidence would be recorded in private session on the understanding that it would be made public later?

    This also allows for possible action using the officer code of conduct legislation without prejudicing its outcome.

    As it is likely this initial evidence submitted will contain anomalies and contradictions, the committee could then enquire further by recalling the officers for further scrutiny in open session at a later date.

  • Have your say...