Jacob Williams
Monday 7th October, 2013

Joined-up thinking

Joined-up thinking

As readers will be aware, last week Cllr. Paul Miller formally requisitioned an extraordinary meeting of Pembrokeshire County Council over the pensions scandal.

The Labour group leader’s requisition, co-signed by Cllrs. Mike Stoddart, Vivien Stoddart, Tony Wilcox and Michael Williams, was hand-delivered to the chairman on Monday last week, following the infamous Corporate Governance Committee Showdown. (See here, and here.)

This afternoon the chairman Cllr. Arwyn Williams refused the requisition, on the grounds that the matter has already been dealt with by the authority’s Audit and Corporate Governance Committees.

Cllr. Williams will know that his refusal only serves to delay the inevitable. In such an event, the constitution provides for the signatories to apply in writing to the Head of Legal and Committee Services to arrange for the meeting to be convened, which he is bound to set the date for within five days.

The potential illegalities flagged up by the Wales Audit Office – which the council so far disputes – are shrouded in mystery. At the Corporate Governance meeting last Monday, council officers, council leader Cllr. Jamie Adams and the two WAO reps were all tight-lipped on the substance of the legal dispute, however officers did confirm no advice was sought by the council over the pensions arrangement before its adoption in 2011, and that the first time legal advice was sought was after the WAO had approached the council with its opinions over the legality.

Subsequently, in August of this year, Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire County Council jointly instructed external lawyers to provide a legal opinion, but we still don’t know what the potential illegalities are, or what gives/gave the council sufficient confidence to disagree with the WAO auditor.

My efforts to try and shine some light on the issue for Pembrokeshire’s sixty representatives ahead of the impending extraordinary council meeting have also amounted to nothing.

Last week I sent an email to the council’s nerve(-ous) centre, outlining my knowledge that a requisition had gone in for an extraordinary meeting to discuss the potential illegalities over the ‘Pensions Arrangements,’ and that as part of the meeting, councillors would be expected to vote to refer the matter to the Welsh Government, and to suspend the Chief Executive pending the outcome of that inquiry.

The email, which I copied to all councillors, read:

“I understand that an extraordinary meeting of the council has been requisitioned, citing the ‘Pensions Arrangements’ brought in by the Senior Staff Committee in September 2011, and relative potential legal issues with the arrangements and/or their adoption.

During the Corporate Governance Committee meeting on Monday of this week, it was established that the council has received or will shortly receive an external legal opinion in relation to this matter.

I would like to request that all councillors be provided with a copy of this advice and any other documents which have been used to inform the council’s position in relation to the ‘Pensions Arrangements,’ prior to the meeting – if necessary, on a confidential basis.

I would suggest that there is a clear need for councillors to know this information ahead of the extraordinary council meeting, and that a summary of the information would simply not be adequate to inform our views on a matter we will be expected to vote upon.”

This afternoon I received a reply, which was copied to all councillors at my own request. Rather disappointingly, though not altogether unsurprisingly given previous form, we’re told that there are a number of reasons why councillors can’t be brought up to speed in this way.

Whether it was by collusion or coincidence, in 2011 these neighbouring authorities adopted what appears to be the same highly controversial and potentially illegal pensions arrangement.

But there can be little doubt that, after the fact, Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire council are certainly making good use of this modern ‘joined-up thinking’ approach.

And it seems quite a fruitful little number. Not only does this joint legal pact halve each authority’s costly bill for legal advice, but it handily provides a mutual excuse to keep their respective councillors in the dark!

What we’re told is that because it’s a “joint opinion,” the legal advice that has already been received “is owned by Carmarthenshire, as well as this Authority,” and that there is no permission from Carmarthenshire to provide the opinion to Pembrokeshire councillors. At the moment it is not altogether clear whether CCC has been approached over my request by PCC officers and has refused permission, or whether CCC’s lack of permission has been assumed by PCC.

Another reason why us councillors are told we must not be allowed sight of the legal opinion, is that the release of the information could prejudice any legal proceedings that may be brought against either of the councils. Furthermore, we’re told that there have been “previous instances when exempt information papers have been found to have been disclosed to third parties,” and so there is a lack of “confidence” in councillors that “the confidentiality of the opinion could be guaranteed.”

It seems that the Wales Audit Office might just hold the torch that can shine the much-needed glimmer of light, as the Llanelli Star reports that in the case of Carmarthenshire County Council, the auditor is considering going public.

A statement printed by the newspaper from a WAO spokesperson says that the auditor is: “considering issuing public interest reports to provide the public with detail on the matters of concern. This would also give the council an opportunity to respond formally and publicly to his concerns.”

“If the council continues to oppose his view he will also have to consider whether to apply to the courts for a declaration that an item of account is unlawful.”

Let’s hope that the same auditor appointed to both councils’ accounts, Anthony Barrett, is also considering issuing a public interest report over Pembrokeshire’s.


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5 Comments...

  • Dave Edwards

    Looking at the Auditor’s judgment in the Caerphilly case, the WAO’s claim of illegality had two elements.

    First, their meeting was not advertised in the proper manner – it seems PCC’s was, so no luck there.

    Secondly, as the report was written by officers who were beneficiaries, the Auditor maintained that the people concerned should have declared an interest and left the room which they did not. He states quite clearly that their very presence influenced matters (to their advantage).

    The PCC case appears analogous to this second element and so the Auditor’s view should be consistent.

  • Keanjo

    The County Council’s behaviour is unacceptable. We should all email the First Minister and urge him to take over the administration of this Authority.

  • Valley-Red

    Furthermore, we’re told that there have been “previous instances when exempt information papers have been found to have been disclosed to third parties,” and so there is a lack of “confidence” in councillors that “the confidentiality of the opinion could be guaranteed.”

    What an appalling statement! It is not for officers to decide who can or cannot be trusted. Councillors run Local Authorities and should be given all information that assists them to carry out their duties properly, and it is beyond the pale that one local authority can dictate what elected members of another authority are told.

  • Keanjo

    Quite right VR, Why should officers assume they are more trustworthy than the elected members? In any case why shouldn’t the public know – it is our money being spent!

  • Jon Preston

    Some may be interested in following this link:

    http://www.paulmillerpembrokeshire.com/councilchange

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