Jacob Williams
Thursday 17th October, 2013

Hanging in suspense

Hanging in suspense

During today’s full council meeting an attempt was made by Cllr. Paul Miller to allow councillors the opportunity to debate the auditor’s legal doubts over the controversial ‘Pensions Arrangements,’ currently looming over the council.

You’ll remember that Cllr. Miller, along with four other councillors, recently presented a requisition for an extraordinary council meeting to discuss this very matter, which included referring the matter to the Welsh Assembly, and the suspension of the Chief Executive pending the inquiry. This requisition was refused by the council chairman, Cllr. Arwyn Williams.

Following his refusal to convene the meeting, Cllr. Williams said to the Pembrokeshire Herald “what’s the point?,” and he questioned the expense of arranging such a meeting. He did, though, suggest that Cllr. Miller could submit it as an item of business in the ordinary fashion, to today’s meeting, though he also admitted that Cllr. Miller was still likely get his extraordinary meeting as there is a provision in the constitution which allows the signatories of refused requisitions to write to the legal department to convene the meeting, which cannot be refused.

Given that the deadline for submitting items of business for the agenda for today’s meeting had passed when Cllr. Williams made this comment, the only way in which this item could have been discussed was with his permission, or if councillors voted by a majority to suspend the rule which prevents items being discussed without notice. This is what Cllr. Miller chose to do, following some responses he had received to his pre-tabled questions on the topic, which he said he was “not happy with.”

Since I’ve been on the council, by my own recollection this was the fourth attempt that had been made to suspend the relevant procedure rule to allow the discussion of urgent non-agenda items – all attempts have so far failed. Yet a strange sense of confusion swept over the the top table over what exactly Cllr. Miller was asking for. There was certainly going to be no vote until he could provide the exact paragraph number of the rule he wished to suspend. Describing it was simply not good enough.

It was quite remarkable how none of the authority’s impartial officers present, between them, could manage to find the necessary paragraph in their copies of the constitution to assist, and during the time Cllr. Miller took to consult his own copy, the chairman moved on and continued with the items on the agenda, which included questions on the matter tabled by me and Cllr. Mike Stoddart.

And there was little new information forthcoming in reply to any of them. Councillors were simply told by the leader that “there are some differences of opinion of the lawfulness” between the Wales Audit Office and the council, and that ‘constructive dialogue’ had been ongoing between the two parties, and it would be “inappropriate to comment further.”

We were also told that the reason the authority did not seek external advice of any kind before introducing the scheme in 2011, was that “external advice would have incurred cost.” It must be borne in mind that the introduction of the scheme, and the defence of it so far, has relied very heavily on the scheme being ‘cost neutral’ to the authority. Today the leader raised the bar even further, claiming not only did the scheme not cost the authority, but the pension fund too. However, Cllr. Adams did admit that the ongoing services of Timothy Kerr QC, who he revealed is the external barrister providing the authority’s opinion in this matter, would create unknown additional costs.

As for where the idea came from to introduce the scheme, Cllr. Adams said that it was ‘evident’ from information that had been received by the authority “from HMRC, the pensions authority, professional bodies and relevant business and financial media.”

The claim he would have us believe, and which is particularly hard to understand, is that “HMRC made clear their expectation that in relation to limited individuals” who were to be affected by the new tax laws, “employers may implement alternative payment structures for the equivalent of their pension contributions, which of course would be immediately tax liable.”

If that was the case, then it’s difficult to see why such an arrangement isn’t widespread, so I asked whether the leader could shed light on the collusion that had gone on between Pembrokeshire County Council and Carmarthenshire County Council, as it could be no coincidence that these neighbouring authorities were the only ones known to have adopted such a scheme.

I was told: “In terms of any coincidence or whatever you may wish to imply Cllr. Williams, I am not aware that there were any discussions between the two authorities.”

Speaking to the Western Telegraph last week, Cllr. Adams was keen to stress that the council’s advice was that the pensions arrangement was above board, and that “the legality of the meeting is not in question.” In the case of Caerphilly, it’s common knowledge that the attendance of certain officers during the discussion of a matter to which they were potential financial beneficiaries, was a big no-no.

With this in mind, my attempt to discover the extent of the authority’s legal advice fell flat, when the leader refused to answer my follow-up which asked whether the council’s barrister had given the authority advice on the attendance of certain officers during the meeting as well as the financial arrangement itself. In true Pembrokeshire-style democracy, the leader’s refusal to answer was made all the more easier for him as immediately beforehand the chairman asked him: “do you want to answer this or shall we move on?” It seems that we will just have to wait until the Wales Audit Office’s appointed auditor issues his public interest report before we know exactly which aspect(s) of the scheme these legal ‘differences of opinion’ cover.

Having thoroughly explained the rule he wished to suspend and why, a recorded vote was taken on Cllr. Miller’s attempt to allow the debate on the pensions scandal, which appears below. Despite it being unsuccessful, the extraordinary meeting – at which exactly the same topic is to be discussed – is still certain to go ahead. It remains unknown whether Cllr. Miller and his signatories have put their request in writing to the Head of Legal and Committee Services, but when they do, the subsequent date of the meeting is bound to be announced within five days.

Not affiliated to any group
Phil Baker
Tony Brinsden
Tessa Hodgson
Bob Kilmister
Jonathan Nutting
Mike Stoddart
Vivien Stoddart
Jacob Williams

Labour
Pat Davies
Alison Lee
Paul Miller
Gwilym Price
Tom Tudor
Tony Wilcox
Guy Woodham

Conservative
David Bryan
David Howlett

IPG
Reg Owens

Plaid Cymru
Jonathan Preston
Rhys Sinnett
Michael Williams

21

IPG
Jamie Adams
John Allen-Mirehouse
Daphne Bush
Wynne Evans
Lyndon Frayling
Huw George
Brian Hall
Simon Hancock
Paul Harries
Umelda Havard
Mike James
Lyn Jenkins
Michael John
Stephen Joseph
Keith Lewis
Rob Lewis
Pearl Llewellyn
Peter Morgan
Elwyn Morse
David Neale
Myles Pepper
Sue Perkins
David Pugh
David Rees
Tom Richards
Ken Rowlands
David Simpson
Rob Summons
Arwyn Williams
Steve Yelland

Not affiliated to any group
Mike Evans
Owen James
David Lloyd

Conservative
Stan Hudson

34

No abstentions.

0


I understand that the request for the extraordinary meeting has now been submitted, which will require the subsequent date for the meeting to be announced before the end of next week, the 25th October.

Huwrithmetic

It was probably just as well that today’s wasn’t the first council meeting to be streamed over the internet. As dress rehearsals go, it was bedlam, and the Pembrokeshire electorate would have seen little to instil much confidence.

One example of many, was Cllr. Huw George’s attempt to answer Cllr. Mike Stoddart’s question seeking clarification over the remarks Cllr. George had given in a BBC Radio Wales interview over the pensions arrangement.

He told the reporter that his understanding of the scheme allowed for both the employer and the tax-man to be better off (listen to the interview here.)

In answer to Cllr. Stoddart’s question, the pre-prepared speech read out by Cllr. George, which ended with the now-famous “that’s the way, chair, that I understand it,” did little to clear up the arithmetic anomaly.

In his supplementary, Cllr. Stoddart said it was not logical that senior officers of the council could get a ‘tax advantage’ under the scheme, and yet at the same time, “the tax-man gains in each and every way,” and asked for it to be explained once and for all how both parties could stand to gain.

Cllr. George simply replied: “I don’t understand HMRC either.”


Answers on a postcard

Until he abruptly applied the brakes on his quest for proper scrutiny during the meeting this afternoon, for some months, one of the causes championed by Cllr. Bob Kilmister has been the leader’s travelling expenses row.

Back on July 4th, it was revealed on that other website that council leader Cllr. Jamie Adams submitted – and was paid for – historical travelling expenses claims dating back four years. It was also uncovered that Cllr. Adams submitted his claim forms just days after the close of nominations for the 2012 council elections, after he knew he was unopposed in the election and his seat was safely in the bag for another five years.

Back at the July council meeting, Cllr. Kilmister couldn’t have been more resolute in his determination for the leader’s lax expense practises to be investigated – he was so keen that he called, with a recorded vote, to allow the motion to be discussed there and then, and ultimately, to be referred to the authority’s standards committee.

The vote to suspend the rules, which Cllr. Adams took part in, was lost, so the next opportunity available to Cllr. Kilmister to get it discussed (short of calling for an extraordinary meeting) was by submitting it for inclusion on the agenda for today’s meeting, which he did – though this time his written motion called for the matter to be referred to the more appropriate audit committee.

We may never know whether it was down to nerves, voices in his head or the threat of nuclear warfare, but just as he was called by the chairman to formally ‘move’ his motion, Cllr. Kilmister said he wanted to withdraw it completely.

All theories will be gratefully received.


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One comment...

  • Malcolm Calver

    Whilst I thank Cllr Jacob Williams for his report on the meeting I would have appreciated the names of those five councillors who failed to turn up at this important meeting and if they gave a reason for their non attendance.

    Hopefully, they will attend the meeting that obviously Huw Miller will authorise and I presume our beloved chairman Cllr Arwyn Williams will put aside his objections and efforts to try and stop open debate and conduct it in a proper manner.

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