Jacob Williams
Tuesday 26th January, 2021

Auditor probes Westley deal

Auditor probes Westley deal

It’s not often that a meeting of Pembrokeshire County Council’s snoozy corporate overview and scrutiny committee is the authority’s most hotly-anticipated meeting of the year so far.

But that will be the case on Thursday – as this august body considers a motion tabled by former council leader, Cllr. Jamie Adams.

Cllr. Adams is proposing that a review be conducted into the circumstances surrounding last year’s unexpected departure – and associated £95k pay-off – of PCC’s chief executive, Ian Westley.

In his trademark innuendo style – hinting but never coming out with it – Jamie wants to know what part personal behaviour or breakdowns in relations may have played.

The trouble with this proposal is that, if there are any juicy details waiting to be publicly disclosed – and I’d be at the front of the queue to hear them – they will have been caught by a powerful stipulation within the legal agreement which secured Mr. Westley’s settlement and departure.

This is the clause, covered at least twice on this blog previously, in which the council and Mr. Westley agreed to be bound by confidentiality.

Neither party is allowed to badmouth the other, nor, indeed, talk about the circumstances which surrounded the ‘settlement agreement’ that resulted in Mr. Westley leaving.

The main point of interest in the report to Thursday’s meeting, by new interim chief executive, Richard Brown, is the public confirmation that the auditors have come-a-knocking.

Audit Wales – the statutory body formerly known as the Wales Audit Office – is “currently examining the circumstances that led to the departure of Pembrokeshire County Council’s Chief Executive, Mr Ian Westley, and the circumstances surrounding him receiving a payment of £95,000 under the terms of a Settlement Agreement.”

With the sort of gravity that could curdle the constitutions of County Hall’s toughest operators, the report pronounces:

“This audit work is being undertaken on behalf of the Auditor General for Wales (Auditor General) as part of his statutory duty to audit the Council’s accounts under s13(2) of the Public Audit (Wales) Act 2004. As such, Audit Wales has full access to all documents and communications (including the Settlement Agreement) and has been undertaking interviews with key individuals, including officers, as a part of their enquiries.”

Gulp!

In the circumstances, it’s difficult to argue against the report’s suggestion that:

“The findings of the Auditor General are likely to be of interest to all Members and it is believed will directly address the matters that Cllr Adams seeks to understand through his proposal of an internal investigation, and indeed is likely to be more informative than could be achieved through an internal investigation.”

We’re told that Audit Wales’ probe into the Westley decampment is expected to “conclude shortly,” that it will be “reported to the council” and that the auditors have “confirmed their agreement to present their findings within an appropriate forum to Members.”

Recommending that Cllr. Adams’ internal review isn’t adopted, members are also told that any behavioural issues that may have been claimed to exist at the authority will have been addressed by “a significant piece of work [which] has recently commenced.”

So what are the auditors probing?

We can only speculate – it’s not even clear at this stage whether it’s a routine probe, or if it follows a referral or specific allegation.

Unofficially, there seems to be two schools of thought: that the auditors are investigating the legal basis on which the unbudgeted £95k pay-off was made.

This speculation hasn’t been helped by the cloudiness surrounding “who” or “what” authorised or approved the various elements of this unexpected deal.

Was it the council’s leader, Cllr. David Simpson, or its finance chief, Jon Haswell – a point covered in my earliest blogpost on the topic, where I identified some blurred lines between the departure, the pay-off, and the settlement agreement which secured both.

The second theme that could be of interest to Audit Wales is the probity of the process by which the payment and settlement agreement was negotiated and/or approved.

Is the agreement one which may be made by a public body such as a county council? Does the secret contract contain clauses it shouldn’t have?

If the gagging clause is sound, and remains in force, it would seem that councillors are powerless to probe – so the auditor, with its sweeping legal powers and investigative resources, may prove to be the only avenue for scrutiny in what has turned into something of a bitter battle.

Wheels within wheels

I happen to be a member of the committee meeting on Thursday, which is chaired by Pembroke Dock councillor, Brian Hall.

Among those watching the webcast will, surely, be the departed chief executive, Mr. Westley – who we already know takes a keen interest in such affairs and isn’t ready to ‘let it go.’

Bri and Ian have, historically, made a fine double act – and if any readers have any (publishable) nicknames better than Bri-Ian, I’m all ears.

JW has delved deep, and mischievously-annotated the following classic snap from a well-stocked library.

Taken outside County Hall, this September 2005 press pic promoted a council ‘park and ride’ fitness initiative.

It encouraged staff from the Llangwm/Burton area to park up their cars at Haverfordwest Rugby Club and cycle the rest of the way to the authority’s HQ.

The idea being that it would lead to a reduction in clogged roads and arteries.

Needless to say, this green scheme for council workers – from an era before green schemes were fashionable – sank without a trace.

But in this photograph we can, at least, say it left behind an everlasting legacy.

Lilac-shirted Westley – then the authority’s transport chief – straddles a tandem with the portfolio’s then-cabinet member, Hall.

Rumour has it that Brian retrofitted paddles, with visions of pedalling to the Emerald Isle – but got no further than Hobbs Point on his important business trip.

The corporate overview and scrutiny committee meets at 10am on Thursday, 28th January, and will be live-streamed and subsequently archived on the page at this link.


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15 Comments...

  • Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do,
    I’m half-crazy just for the love of you.
    It won’t be a stylish marriage,
    ‘Cos I can’t afford a carriage,
    But you’ll look sweet,
    On the back seat,
    Of a bicycle made for two.

  • Malcolm Calver

    Whilst accepting the light-hearted comment from Mike that we can all laugh about, for the beleaguered council taxpayers of Pembrokeshire, who pay dearly for the actions of some of these clowns at County Hall, this debacle needs to be fully examined.

    We must not allow taxpayers’ money to be dished out willy-nilly without there being any comeback.

  • Mark

    Does the audit investigation mean it is possible Ian Westley will be asked to repay some or all of the £95,000 payment?

  • William Bruce

    An alternative is that the investigation could reveal dicey conduct.

    If, as you say, the auditors have access to internal communications, I hope there have been no more losses of data relevant to an external inquiry.

  • Keanjo

    Or is it possible the council are responsible for wrongful dismissal?

  • Barrie Smith

    There was no investigation when we paid BPJ over £300k.

    These payments are insane and it’s PCC residents that have to foot the bill.

    I hope all the people involved in this scheme are thoroughly investigated including the councillors involved, and it’s an open enquiry not another cover up like the Pembroke Dock grants, Riverside Shopping Centre and the Ocky White purchases.

    If anyone is found guilty then all face the repercussions.

  • Keanjo, as was pointed out at this morning’s meeting, the departure of Mr. Westley was a mutually-reached decision – he wasn’t dismissed, he accepted a pay-off and left.

    We don’t have an official explanation as to why, or any details about what, if anything, led up to it.

    Given the existence of the gagging clause, it seems that this was by design – so we may never receive any official explanation, although some details may emerge from Audit Wales, if they have any findings.

    Whilst Mr. Westley gives every appearance of someone who now regrets his decision to sign his name to his departure deal, it must not be forgotten this was surely something he either personally negotiated, or had negotiated on his behalf, and entered into, only a few months ago.

  • Flashbang

    I’m with Barrie Smith on his comment, why wasn’t the BPJ payoff investigated and why was there no investigations as to why he was pushed out the back door with a suitcase full of money before any questions were answered?

    We have to ask whether there were any other shady pay-offs to lesser lights to keep them quiet too.

    Also plod’s part in looking the other way when it comes to PCC dealings.

  • Jacob, if the mutually agreed decision was reached in an atmosphere of bullying and harassment which prevented Mr Westley carrying out his duties, he could still have a case for constructive dismissal.

    The gagging bribe could be construed as an indication that the council was admitting that the pressure to leave was unfair.

    It would be interesting if the matter were taken to tribunal.

  • I suppose anything’s possible, Keanjo – and just like in much of this, we can only speculate!

    Whilst there may have been circumstances which rendered Mr. Westley unable to carry out his duties, your hypothetical scenario of ‘bullying and harassment’ is not something that’s known of (not that that would definitively rule out the possibility, of course) but it would seem to raise the obvious question: who?

    Would this hypothetical conduct come from fellow officers, councillors, or both?

    If councillor(s) then the expected standards of councillors come under the remit of the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales.

    Indeed a notable number of what the ombudsman considers his most serious cases in Welsh councils over the past few years have involved this sort of elected member conduct, included targeted conduct.

    I’m not aware of the ombudsman investigating any allegation or case of the sort in Pembrokeshire.

    If we’re talking fellow officers then, this would seem unlikely considering that Mr. Westley was the single highest officer at the authority.

  • Keanjo

    Jacob, I agree harassment and bullying from officers is most unlikely and only an elected member(s) could be involved.

    A tribunal would only be involved if Ian Westley decides to appeal. I’ll be watching your space!

    Thank you for keeping us informed.

  • John Hudson

    Having found an unlawful payment element in the previous pay off, perhaps the WA has taken it upon itself the look at this one.

    I am still intrigued by the leader being advised that he had plenary power to sign in this matter. I cannot find this in the council’s constitution or legislation.

    What is this power and does it have any limit, other than the usual test of reasonableness?

  • Keanjo, whilst accepting that it is only a hypothetical, on your idea of a tribunal, there wouldn’t be anything to ‘appeal’ since no dismissal took place.

    I’m not ruling out what you are suggesting entirely, but any prospect of a tribunal or something similar would have to result from Mr. Westley initiating legal action – costly and risky.

    As we already know that there is a powerful ‘gagging’ clause within the secret settlement agreement – which Cllr. Simpson yesterday said was a ‘standard’ clause – I think it is very fair to assume that it contains another ‘standard’ clause – in which the parties give up their right to pursue any claim they felt they may have against the other.

    John, it is also worth noting, and easy to forget, that the payment you referred to contained unlawful sums, and that this deal was drawn up by, or under the assistance of, external financial and legal ‘experts’ who were said to be among the brightest in Britain. Indeed, one has since been knighted!

    Although the primary motivation of Audit Wales’ 2021 investigation is probably not to establish what led up to the sudden departure, further details of this may well emerge from it.

    I think even Cllr. Adams had no option but to concede, yesterday, that the same cannot be said of any internal investigation like he is proposing.

  • Malcolm Calver

    Elections are coming fast and after watching the Corporate Overview and Scrutiny committee webcast meeting this week I noted the equal concern of most members was their ability to be re-elected when discussing the proposed council tax increases put forward by Cllr Kilmister.

    I do hope they take into account what seems to the average council tax payer that such payments as the one to Mr Westley need to be curtailed in future.

  • John Hudson

    I have just watched the debate on the town and community council election costs proposal at that meeting.

    Given this council’s history I can see that members may have been misled/ignored over election arrangements which may have been commandeered by a previous returning officer.

    Other councils (eg Powys and from its exercise, North Wales councils) approve an annual list of maximum charges that the returning officer is empowered to use. He does not set them!

    No reference to full cost recovery in Powys report to its council. If this council decides it cannot afford elections costing £170,000, paid for by the people, then it may as well give up.

    What will be the additional admin cost of recharging or repayment deferral? Have members been properly and fully advised?

    As regards Cllr Tom Tudor’s comment about the methods of how we vote, as you know that is a matter for legislation, not the independent state of Pembrokeshire, its officers and/or councillors. Sorry about the rant.

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