Jacob Williams
Monday 13th December, 2021

PAY-OFF PROBE DRAFT REPORT ISSUED

PAY-OFF PROBE DRAFT REPORT ISSUED

• Audit Wales report finally finished
• Confidential draft shown to PCC’s new CEO only
• Will be made public soon – but possibly as late as February, 2022
• Claim has been made that full council was deliberately bypassed as a red line in pay-off negotiations

There’s been some movement in Audit Wales’ long-running investigation into the unlawful £95k pay-off to Pembrokeshire County Council’s former chief executive, Ian Westley.

The September 2020 behind-closed-doors deal – signed off without legal authority by the council’s leader, Cllr. David Simpson – has been under investigation by the statutory auditor for longer than we might have thought.

Whilst knowledge of the probe first became public in committee papers in January 2021, it may even have started in September 2020 – when the ink on Mr. Westley’s £95k cheque would have been wet to the touch.

A very brief update given by Audit Wales to the council’s November 30th audit committee proves that, whatever the probe’s official starting point, it’s already celebrated its first birthday:

Description and scope: Governance and decision-making arrangements relating to the Chief Executive’s departure

Timetable: November 2020-Autumn/Winter 2021

Status: Report being drafted

Avid watchers of the same meeting’s webcast will have noted that, in response to a question, the Audit Wales representative let slip that the county council’s new chief executive, Will Bramble CBE, has already emailed all councillors to say that he has finally received a copy of the final report.

This public revelation was fortuitous – since Mr. Bramble’s email to councillors, telling us he had received a copy for his eyes only, was emblazoned with “confidential” – and the ominous: “…it is an offence for a person to disclose information in contravention of Section 54 of the [Public Audit (Wales)] 2004 Act.”

I still have not seen or been leaked the report – or any extract from it – through official or unofficial channels.

Nonetheless, JW understands on good authority that as part of its investigation, Audit Wales has been told by at least one council officer – the authority’s HR boss, Ceri Davies – that Cllr. Simpson instructed that any pay-off to Mr. Westley must not go near full council for approval.

Cllr. Simpson maintains that he sought advice and was told – we now know wrongly – that he had legal power to approve the pay-off alone.

Mr. Davies is one of four of the council’s chief officers whose involvement in the saga is under scrutiny.

The others are ex-monitoring officer, Claire Jones – who cut and run the authority at the first sign of trouble, finance chief Jon Haswell, and legal chief Claire Incledon who – at the time of typing, at least – remains on long-term leave which began this summer.

The claim that Cllr. Simpson sought to ensure that Mr. Westley’s pay-off never went to full council could be open to interpretation.

Critics of Cllr. Simpson’s handling of the affair would surely hold it up as evidence of a personal desire on the leader’s part to circumvent backbench councillors’ due scrutiny and approval.

But if the leader did make such a decree, and the bypassing of full council was a red line which emerged as part of the backroom negotiations between Mr. Westley and Cllr. Simpson, it’s interesting to speculate just whose red line it was.

It is perhaps more convincing that it was Mr. Westley who had the greatest to fear from his pay-off going before full council – he almost certainly had the most to lose.

Not just the potential cash loss if councillors vetoed his departure deal, but knowledge that this outcome would leave him hideously exposed, and expected to carry on in his top council job having revealed an obvious desire to leave.

Given his divisive nature – largely popular and with great charm on a personal level, yet also not without critics of his style and abilities – there was indeed a real prospect that full council would have voted to reject a golden goodbye for Mr Westley in 2020.

His supporters could have withheld their support on the basis that he was too good an officer for the authority to lose.

Others may have felt he was not worthy of such a cash bonus to be sent packing.

It will be interesting to see if this allegation about the full council red line makes it to Audit Wales’ long-awaited final report, but my sourcing is impeccable.

As to when we can expect the fireworks, the Audit Wales representative had a bit more to say on that:

“We’ve issued a draft report which the chief executive is considering, and will respond to us this month, so we would look to finalise the report to yourselves, it’ll probably be after Christmas because I think it would need to be translated so it’ll be early January… […] …we’d hope to wrap it up in January, but, knowing the timeline for getting a governance and audit committee put in, and a council meeting, that could drift into February.”

Much closer to the May 2022 local elections than some may have hoped…

Not including the offending £95k sum, this pay-off saga has already cost taxpayers over £100k so far, and counting in various fees – as revealed by the answer to a full council question tabled by Cllr. Jamie Adams, last week.


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11 Comments...

  • Barrie Smith

    Well done Jacob, waiting until February 2002 would be ridiculous. This report should be made available immediately. The new CEO has only been in position for a few months and has very little experience in local government.

    It would seem that the payment should have come in front of full council, as this was not the case, what options are available?

  • Marcel Laval

    February 2022 looks action packed…

  • Ann Davies

    Well done to you councillor for your continuing hard work for the truth.

  • John Hudson

    Is there any reason (apart from COVID) for the delay in letting us poor taxpayers know? We also pay the Audit Wales fees for this investigation through the council.

    Why the secrecy, is it to allow the council time to get its corporate house in order?

    The proper final audit of the council’s 2021-2022 accounts, and necessary approval by council, are held up in this.

    As usual the people whose money it is have no say.

  • John Hudson

    I suspect that many would have missed the revelations at yesterday’s senior staff committee meeting.

    In response to Cllr Reg Owens’ questions about the Review of the Authority’s Operating Model, Mr Bramble stated that “technically (Mr Brown) is still being paid as the Head of Paid Service.”

    Common sense rather suggests that following Mr Bramble’s appearance to do the CEO job, the job of Interim Chief Executive became redundant, and the salary attached to that post should have been stopped. What does “technically” mean in this context?

    I see that in financial regulations, the CFO (and head of human resources in regard to payroll pensions and personal taxation) is responsible for all payments to employees.

    Perhaps these lesser individuals have been put in an invidious position by a failure of higher corporate management. Have we got a head of human resources in post?

  • Mark

    The length of time it has taken, if this Audit Wales investigation report is under 900 pages long, is not thorough, leaves us asking questions and wanting further details, I for one will be very suspicious!

  • John Hudson

    So the “public” publication of the council’s audit report will possibly now be as late as February.

    This gives the current council little time to evaluate and consider the report’s findings.

    We elect a new council in May 2022, but after 28 March we enter a period of pre-election “purdah” where there are restrictions placed on what councils and councillors can publish during this pre election period of heightened sensitivity.

    It may well turn out that it will be for the new council to determine this settlement matter.

  • John Hudson

    It is well for us to be aware that there is a protocol of last resort whereby Welsh Government can support, direct, or intervene in a local council under the Local Government (Wales) Measure 2009.

    Formal Guidance provides that whereas support is available on request by a local authority, formal intervention entails ministers requiring an authority to act in some way.

    The need for formal intervention would be reflected in adverse findings and recommendations from Audit Wales, or, less frequently other inspectorates.

    It will in particular consider the strength and robustness of an authority’s procedures for self-evaluation and, where appropriate, the results of those.

    A shadowy, little known group of national partners, entitled Improvement Support Conference (ISC), meets on a quarterly basis and is made up of representatives from Welsh Government, the WLGA, the WAO, CSSIW and Estyn.

    There are more specific one, but the protocol identifies the following general problems:

    Dysfunctional arrangements
    • Confirmation bias: tendency in organisational culture to emphasise evidence of success and discount criticism (including public, political or regulatory criticism) or other evidence of failure
    • Breakdown in key relationships (eg member/officer, scrutiny/executive, corporate/service or local authority/partner)
    • Ineffective scrutiny, including lack of regular pre-decision scrutiny
    • Sustained political instability, especially if focused on internal issues or jockeying for advantage rather than issues of policy or delivery
    • Under-funding, un-managed overspends or inefficiency in key service areas; poor value for money in grant management, commissioning or contracting arrangements
    • Key vacancies unfilled for extended periods and/or high levels of staff turnover or absence

    It is instructive to see how little input, or even opportunity, we mere taxpayers have to participate in these background procedures.

  • Keanjo

    So, the Head of Legal Services has decided to resign after extended sick leave.

    This is adequately provided for in the Dyfed pension plan – no need for any extra payment.

  • John Hudson

    I have had it confirmed, in a roundabout way, that the former interim CEO is NOT being paid as the Head of Paid Service as councillors were informed in the webcast, but as a head of service.

    How will it be recorded that the committee webcast is incorrect for the council’s true formal official public record of that meeting?

  • Malcolm Calver

    Except for a few including you Jacob the rest of the bunch should hold their heads in shame.

    People worry about Boris and his shenanigans when this blatant act by Simpson and his cronies goes on under their noses.

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