Jacob Williams
Sunday 6th September, 2020

Trouble at the top

Trouble at the top

The revelation that Pembrokeshire County Council’s chief executive, Ian Westley, is leaving the authority caused great surprise this week.

I’ve been asked many questions on this bombshell over the past few days – correspondence including three unsolicited telephone calls from two BBC journalists on Wednesday, hours after the press release was official.

The question on everyone’s lips: what’s going on?

A good question – to which my honest reply can only be: why would you expect a councillor to know?!

To underline this point, members of PCC still haven’t been notified via official channels of the associated £95k pay-off – news which seems to have first emerged on the Western Telegraph’s website!

And the £95k Westley trousers falls just shy of the £100k threshold which would have required the sum to be ratified by a vote of all sixty councillors.

Phew!

One wonders how strong was the temptation to hold out for £4,999 extra.

In keeping with the unclear nature of all this, the unbudgeted £95k award was a decision controversially approved by Mr. Westley’s senior colleague, finance chief Jonathan Haswell, and not by an elected member such as the council’s leader, Cllr. David Simpson, or a committee of councillors.

Mr. Haswell’s decision notice, posted on an obscure part of the council’s website, shows how he merely “Consulted: The Leader/Cabinet.”

As such, there appears to be no avenue for councillors to call-in the costly decision.

The name of Jon Haswell, PCC’s director of resources, is absent from his £95k decision notice

It’s raised interesting questions over how far unelected council officials’ powers extend in approving fellow senior officers’ untimely and potentially advantageous exit deals, without either elected-member accountability, or avenue for recourse.

If one was to put it diplomatically, then, it seems clear that this departure and the associated pay-off was not in accordance with the normal course of events.

The County Hall press release only served to raise more questions than it answered – and this document is pretty much all the public has to go on.

As well as imparting information, these things can often contain subtle agenda-setting prose.

When trying to read between the lines in a farewell notice, buzzwords like “health” or “retirement” require little deciphering. They are solidly dependable indicators even to the untrained eye.

For those with a little more experience, the mood music can be interpreted through old chestnuts like “fresh pastures” and “new challenges.”

The arguably less sophisticated indicators, obvious to even the most amateur sleuth, come in phrases which start: “spend more time” and end with: “in the garden” or “with the family.”

There was none of the above in the official announcement, raising red flags for keen Kremlinologists everywhere.

The closest we got was the vague quote in which a hopeful Mr. Westley, 61, says: “…I believe the time is now right to move on and allow new leadership to build on the foundations that are firmly in place.”

Perhaps the most reliable documentary evidence that this wasn’t a run-of-the-mill ‘retirement’ comes in the revelation that the £95k pay-off accompanies a “settlement agreement as agreed between the Council and a chief officer.”

Exactly who or what constitutes “the Council” in this context is not clear – nor who “agreed” this “settlement agreement.”

A learned pal with some knowledge of acrimonious employment disputes and facilitating ‘smoother’ separations, has been in touch.

She says that, if PCC had its wits about it (how naive!) then the “settlement agreement” would likely include clauses precluding later legal action (unfair dismissal, anyone?) and binding both the employer and the employee to keep schtum.

In other words, not requiring a misleadingly rosy picture of the parting to be portrayed, but a measure to prevent each party bad-mouthing the other over the circumstances of the divorce.

But what need for a hypothetical ‘we won’t spill our guts’ clause, if there were no guts to spill on either side?

And this is where things get difficult to speculate, never mind explain.

With no involvement in any discussions or decision-making, I have no promises to keep.

A source, not a cabinet member, tipped me off to the departure talks – which I was led to believe were then at an advanced stage – a week before even cabinet members had been informed, on Tuesday, what was happening.

What I do know is that the easiest question to answer is: was this a firing? The answer is clearly no.

The dismissal of such an officer could only happen following a strict process which was not invoked.

The departure also does not seem to have any disciplinary-related origin – at least, not as far as Mr. Westley was concerned.

So was he asked to leave, or was it his own idea?

The answer seems to depend on who’s being asked, but that’s surely a matter of pride.

JW suspects on a sliding scale between these two options, the answer is probably to be found somewhere in the first quartile.

Some analysts reckon a particular event or circumstance must have triggered the departure talks, but there’s nothing readily evident to suggest that’s the case.

There are some whispers of a row between Mr. Westley and a senior officer, but this isn’t thought to have been serious or consequential.

The gossip in County Hall’s virtual tearoom says that the backdrop to the decampment features confidence issues, long-running senior clashes of opinion over control, and breakdowns of trust and communication.

Cllr. Paul Miller, regeneration cabinet member, and Mr. Westley are said to have shared a fiery relationship, such that being in the same room at the same time was avoided, if possible.

The revelation may come as surprising news, considering the gentlemanly regard in which Mr. Westley is held by so many.

A public example of the tension between the pair can be found in June’s remote meeting of the council’s urgency committee, where Cllr. Miller questioned Mr. Westley on the strength of accountability of senior officers involved in education standards at the authority.

The relevant pieces of interest begin around 23 minutes in. The bonfire is stoked near the 25 minute mark, with the main fireworks display building from the 38th minute on.

Mr. Westley has also faced questions over his capacity for the tough role in tough times, as that example illustrates.

This sort of back-and-forth between the personalities is said to be quite common in a private setting.

Or, as it’s been put to me: “for a while now it’s been a two-way street, with plenty of traffic in each direction and David Simpson acting as the crash barrier.”

Seen as increasingly politicising his unelected chief executive’s role since his 2015 elevation to the top job, Mr. Westley has, like some of his colleagues, drawn criticism for routine offering of political opinions and even entering policy debates with elected councillors.

Since the settlement agreement’s contents are unlikely to emerge, we may never see an official explanation which goes near satisfying the county’s taxpayers’ curiosity.

Speaking of which, it’s worth noting that there are some who strongly disapprove of any public discussion of certain matters concerning public servants.

And especially when it’s a high profile man with as loyal and respectful a following as Mr. Westley’s.

Indeed, this ‘don’t discuss it in front of the children’ attitude can even be found among those who’ve managed to get themselves elected to the council.

Get Carter! Motormouth Mark is councillor for Solva

You may have guessed I’m talking chiefly of the perennial windbag, Mark Carter.

The Solva stooge can always be relied on to defend any council officer, no matter the scenario, usually without prompting.

Toady Carter’s favoured way of currying favour – along with many of his fellow Tory councillors – is to make accusations of ‘disrespect.’ His most famous goody-goody brown-nosing of Westley – where he complained against JW in cosygate – was previously given the treatment on this blog.

True to form, the toadmeister – who must be among this author’s most avid readers – has already taken to social media, piously opining over his displeasure at such open discussion of Mr. Westley’s predicament, which he describes as “retirement,” and seems to think is a deeply private matter.

The fulsome foghorn is, of course, entitled to his personal opinion – but he might also consider how his paying constituents are entitled to know the facts on what is, by any way it’s presented, an abrupt, unusual and so-far unexplained parting of ways of the local authority’s most senior unelected official.

Readers may not be expecting that the last word on this has to go to PCC’s leader of the opposition, Cllr. Jamie Adams.

He shared his views among all councillors in an open letter to PCC’s leader, Cllr. David Simpson.

To be fair, he makes some sense – complaining that members “have not been involved in any way with the process” and “have no understanding of the events.”

Despite claiming to be in the dark, Jamie blames the development on “the Cabinet’s poor relationship with Senior Management.”

It’s worth noting, for those who aren’t aware, that Cllr. Adams – who leads the authority’s interestingly-named ‘independent group’ – doesn’t come to the debate with the cleanest hands.

As the council’s then leader in 2014, Adams was the architect of the disgraced former CEO Bryn Parry-Jones’ notorious (not to mention slightly illegal!) large pay-off, he oversaw Mr. Westley’s stop-gap elevation with questionable authority, and presided over the recruitment process which resulted in Mr. Westley’s shortlisting and permanent appointment.

Cllr. Adams, who is very sad to see Mr. Westley go, requests that the matter be “afforded the opportunity of correct scrutiny” as a “matter of extreme urgency.”

What was perhaps most interesting in Cllr. Adams’ email to Cllr. Simpson was that, whilst he attempts to portray Mr. Westley’s departure as a “decision by Ian,” he criticises the lack of member involvement in awarding the large pay-off – which Mr. Westley nonetheless accepted – as one of County Hall’s “shady back room deals.”

Telling Jamie he’s “surely having a laugh” with his reference to “shady back room deals,” the only response to date comes from Cllr. Miller – who finishes his brief missive: “The brass neck on you is something else.”

The Bryn Parry-Jones scandal taught Pembrokeshire council-watchers that senior local government officers and their employment issues can be a funny old business.

It would seem that, in more ways than one, little has changed in over five years.


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16 Comments...

  • Barrie Smith

    Welcome back Jacob, yet another incident bringing our county into the headlines.

    This payment should be referred to the Wales Audit Office before a payment has been made.

    We should also know what other payments will be made. Pension, along with any legal fees accrued. Is this figure tax free?

    In addition we need some clarity on Mr Haswell’s role in this.

  • Alltalk

    Will any of the £95,000 payoff received by Mr Westley be free of tax, according to HMRC rules?

  • Chris Rowe

    Disconcerting absence of transparency. Perhaps Council needs greater scrutiny by free press.

  • Flashbang

    Does this Council never learn, trying to pull the same wool over taxpayers’ eyes as last time?

    If PCC really wanted to gain the public’s trust they’d have a major cleanout of senior officers, bench warmers and toadies.

    Bring on the night of the long knives. Create carnage at County Hall, make the staff fearful of the ramifications and have them dancing to the elected representatives’ tune, who in turn should be dancing to the electorate’s tune.

  • I did check with PCC’s legal department and it seems this severance payment is made under plenary powers and is therefore not subject to call-in for scrutiny by elected members.

    So much for democracy!

  • Arthur Arran

    My contention is that if an employee wishes to leave of his own free will, then he shouldn’t seek or be awarded sweeteners to go. He would have accrued a pension, that would be enough in any other workplace.

    On the other hand, if there’s been indiscretion on his part (as there was with B.P.J.) then it should be properly investigated.

    It seemed to me at the time that this is a hasty departure. Any payment, even if legal should be stopped, at least until the full facts are out.

  • John Hudson

    I have been scouring “the constitution” as approved by the council.

    I cannot find any reference to plenary powers or for that matter any specific delegation to the leader to agree early retirement terms, for whatever reason, in respect of the Head of Paid Service.

    Is there any council-approved procedure that formally covers this eventuality? If not, is it lawful? Perhaps some appropriate external legal advice has been obtained.

    Can “plenary powers” cover anything that the legal department thinks fit, without further, or any, explanation?

  • Wynne

    Thanks for placing the information in the public domain Jacob.

    I had hoped that the departure of the former CEO Bryn Parry-Jones five years ago would be the dawn of a new era with regard to openness and transparency. I’m beginning to wonder.

    This story will probably run for a while. Please keep us informed.

  • Rosieone

    So, the PCC Delorean seems to be in full working order, straight back to 2014 and the BP-J scandal.

    I fear irreparable damage has been done to the trust between the people of Pembrokeshire and the current administration.

    May as well have kept Farmer Adams & Co. in situ and saved ourselves a few quid in council tax…

  • Faux Espoir

    The £95k agreement would prevent Ian Westley from ‘spilling the beans’ per se, on the inner sanctum at The Kremlin on the Cleddau. He has seen how the cabal of elected members operated and how the cabinet members are more for their own vision not as he sees the betterment for the whole county.

    Mr Westley has challenged the cabinet members which has caused some downward dialogue but possibly has seen other senior officers sounded out by cabinet members which makes the CEO position untenable.

    The elected members should have an input into the process and not have it left to senior executives to make decisions which require some study of the constitution to ensure this is incorporated: bed time musings for Jacob and Old Grumpy.

    Hopefully there isn’t an internal temporary promotion to CEO sanctioned, but an interim appointment made through due process. Then again, this is Pembrokeshire!

  • Malcolm Calver

    Jacob, as I read it Mike Stoddart and John Hudson cannot both be right so perhaps you would clarify the situation for your readers. Seems to me it is a case of too much power in the hands of a few.

  • John Hudson

    Moving forward, when the current CEO departs, the council has to have a CEO with statutory responsibility in post, either by appointment of a current senior officer in a temporary acting position, (as Mr Westley was until he was appointed to the permanent job) or by an open recruitment process to fill the permanent position.

    Is there a current officer who can lawfully act as deputy/acting CEO? There are legal restrictions as to what type or category of officer that can fill this role, some being excluded. I wonder which way the council will be advised to proceed by its current senior officer cadre?

    In respect of the departure legal process, I am sure that there will be external legal advice backing up the use of “plenary” powers to support the decision taken by the Leader, and the Director of Resources’ decision to facilitate that decision by approving the allocation, use and spend of the money outside of the council approved budget.

    However, I see that it has been reported that the council’s Tory group is to ask questions, so the matter may get a public airing.

  • Keanjo

    It worries me that anything like the ‘retirement’ of a chief executive can be arranged by a few members/officers without the knowledge of the person I voted to represent me on the county council.

    If the constitution allows such shenanigans then it needs to be changed.

  • Distraught Parent

    Since Mr Westley is resigning and therefore has nothing to lose, could I beg that he enable a final act of benevolence and humanity and request that the departments of Social Care and Education finally and formally address my serious safeguarding/child protection complaints. We have suffered enough. He will know who I am.

  • Malcolm Calver

    John, for the sake of all those in Pembrokeshire who contribute to this institution, please would both you and Jacob keep us informed about any meeting when the issue will be discussed, especially on legal advice if it was sought.

  • Keanjo

    I see that the plan is to select a new chief executive from the current directors on a 12 month temporary basis before appointing a permanent chief.

    Same old crowd making the same old errors and pushing up the council tax to astronomical levels.

    Since 1996 my payment on the same property has risen from less than £400 to over £2,000 a year for a far far inferior service.

    We need urgent reorganisation, preferably on the previous Dyfed basis or by drastic internal reorganisation under a new CE from outside the County.

    The present policy of internal promotion needs to be stopped.

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