Jacob Williams
Tuesday 4th February, 2014

Out of the frying pan, into the firing line

Out of the frying pan, into the firing line

The BBC reported yesterday that Dyfed-Powys police has confirmed it is liaising with the Crown Prosecution Service over the pension tax-dodge scheme deemed ‘unlawful’ by the Wales Audit Office.

Further details are hard to come by, though this is probably because the BBC’s story was based on a ‘brief statement’ released on Monday, in which Dyfed-Powys police revealed an ‘external force’ has also been party to liaisons.

The prospect of a criminal investigation is bound to unsettle those who have tried to shrug off the auditor’s damning concerns, as is the fact that Carmarthenshire County Council – which implemented a carbon copy of the scheme within months of Pembrokeshire in 2011 – spotted the iceberg on the horizon and quickly moved to scrap their scheme over a month before the auditor published his findings.

Having been in County Hall all day today, I was surprised to see Cllr. Jamie Adams has returned from his holiday. So surprised that I dropped a glass of water! Cllr. Adams voted to approve the controversial scheme as a member of the Senior Staff Committee in September 2011, a scheme which was described to me today by a fellow councillor as ‘morally repugnant.’

Given that the leader’s back in town, it is strange, then, that the Western Telegraph has been given the silent treatment from the Kremlin, in response to a number of pertinent questions it had asked about the scandal in an article to be published in tomorrow’s newspaper. All they got back was “We will not be answering the questions as the Council has to meet first to discuss the Appointed Auditor’s report.”

My first thought was that the questions remained unanswered because the paper went to press before Cllr. Adams was available to offer the authority some of his direction and leadership. However, later on in the piece, titled ‘Wall of silence at County Hall,’ the Telegraph publishes a statement from Cllr. Adams saying: “The council has received a Public Interest Report which it is obliged to consider within one month. The report sets out four recommendations that the Council will be asked to consider. Until such time as Council has met to consider the Auditors report, and other relevant evidence, it would be inappropriate to comment further.”

No doubt a hasty meeting with his trusted deputies will bring him up to speed in time for next week’s Telegraph!

CLICK TO ENLARGE

Click to enlarge

It’s possible that the leader’s Maenclochog-based deputy, Cllr. Huw George, will persuade him to pursue his own logic-defying defence of the scheme which he offered up during a BBC Radio Wales interview in September. Cllr. George had a fascinating take on the tax-avoidance scheme, in which he told the reporter it actually benefited the tax-man “in each and every way.” So worthy was this brilliant logic, it earned him a Golden DonQui award nomination. However, Cllr. Adams’ two deputies are a canny pair, and we would be foolish to rule out the possibility that Cllr. Rob Lewis, his Martletwy-based deputy, will manage to convince him that the auditor’s report contains something to be ‘pleased’ about.

If you’ve read my previous post, you’ll be aware that the only comment issued so far from County Hall came immediately in the aftermath from Cllr. Rob Lewis, whose bizarre media statement says he is “pleased” the auditor “has concluded the Council could take a lawful decision once a number of procedural matters have been addressed.”

Cllr. Lewis singles out one of the report’s sentences and attempts to positively spin it so as to suggest the council just needs to iron out some procedural issues. What the auditor actually says, is that the council has powers to give pay rises to senior staff, but if the council wishes to do this, it would need to do this legally (unlike the way the pension scheme was introduced) and not as a guise for avoiding tax.

The auditor couldn’t have made it much clearer that it’s not legally possible for the council to use its powers to devise a scheme for allowing tax liabilities to be avoided. Not even through giving a pay rise. The two are two completely separate. Cllr. Lewis’ comment suggests that he believes auditor’s report says the council could approve a scheme to offer a pay rise for any officer wishing to drop out of the Local Government Pension Scheme. Can you see any difference between that idea and the scheme that has been operating for over a year so far? No, neither can I, and the positive spin hasn’t fooled anybody I’ve spoken to yet either.

Over the past few days I’ve heard some suggestions floating around that those upstairs wish to avoid having a special full council meeting to discuss the damning report, and rather hope they can get away with bunging it into the agenda of the next regular full council meeting, on March 6th. The auditor’s report was published on January 30th, and requires the meeting to be held within a month, so that idea’s probably a no-goer, but there’s further speculation over the March 6th meeting being brought forward a week, so the pensions report can be sandwiched somewhere between approving the authority’s 2014/15 budget and whatever else is on the agenda. Readers will have their own views on the appropriateness of this idea, given the circumstances.

It never pays to believe all of the rumours in County Hall, but on this one there’s little need to worry one way or the other, because you can believe me when I say that I put my signature this afternoon (along with a number of opposition councillors) to a Labour group-led requisition that this matter be discussed at a special standalone meeting. It was submitted shortly thereafter to the council chairman, Cllr. Arwyn Williams, who has seven days to decide. If he has any understanding of the Pembrokeshire electorate, you’d have to suggest that he’ll make his decision – to agree to the request – well before his thinking-time expires.


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26 Comments...

  • Jon Coles

    The last possible date the meeting can be called to comply with the auditor’s direction is either the 26th or 27th February (depending on whether it is within 4 weeks of publication – the former – or up to and including the four-week anniversary of its publication – the latter).

    There is no lee-way for the Council on this point. Even someone as blinkered as Arwyn Williams seems to be would not dare try to camouflage this issue by running it in a general meeting.

  • Nev Andrews

    Presumably the law enforcement mob are considering the offence of “Misconduct in Public Office”. Per CPS guidance, the offence is committed when:

    “A public officer acting as such wilfully neglects to perform his duty and/or wilfully misconducts himself to such a degree as to amount to an abuse of the public’s trust in the office holder without reasonable excuse or justification.”

    Be interesting to see your readers’ views Jacob…

  • John Hudson

    There is also the question of maladministration by The Council as a body. Alleged or apparent ‘maladministration’ or service failure can include:

    1. delay
    2. incorrect action or failure to take any action
    3. failure to follow procedures or the law
    4. failure to provide information
    5. inadequate record-keeping
    6. failure to investigate
    7. failure to reply
    8. misleading or inaccurate statements
    9. inadequate liaison
    10. inadequate consultation
    11. broken promises

    Your readers can tick their own lists.

    The judicial review into Care Home fees has already found one or two, but other than a claimed improvement in basic administration, I am not aware that much has changed by internal voluntary actions by corporate management or direction by Council Leadership.

    As recent events have shown, misleading or inaccurate statements are still being made and legal advice changed.

  • Roy McGurn

    Although discussing the budget is a major event, current events are more pressing. The “small” matter of the pension arrangements are but the tip of a very big iceberg, as I believe it is symptomatic of deeper issues. It can only be a dedicated meeting.

  • Following a suggestion from an avid reader, I have updated the post to incorporate Cllr. Huw George’s legendary ‘the tax-man gains in each and every way’ gaffe.

  • Goldingsboy

    Gradually, a climate of optimism is growing with each new development surrounding Pembrokeshire’s Pensiongate which, if the county’s past decade of alleged wrongdoing is anything to go by, is emphatically misplaced.

    Hitherto, firm allegations of wrongdoing, buttressed by well-researched evidence, principally by Mike Stoddart, has been haughtily ignored by the prosecuting authorities.

    So, I wouldn’t get too excited.

  • Keanjo

    Ignoring Mike Stoddart’s fully justified complaints is one thing. Ignoring the Welsh Auditor and telling him he doesn’t understand the law is quite another which Jamie is just about to discover.

  • Wayne

    I am following this with interest, but, whatever happened about the councillor who was using council facilities to produce his own election material?!

  • Welshman 23

    It’s a week since this damning report was released, it’s obvious that it’s not in the priority pile as nothing has happened. Just sums up the pathetic way PCC is run, nobody has the balls to address the situation.

  • Les

    We are all missing a trick – can we not ask OG to look at the unlawful payments issue? He will get to the bottom of it in a week!

    He is probably only one of a handful of councillors with any credibility left.

    Let’s go for Pembrokeshire independence and declare OG president, that’s what I say!! (With the presidential palace relocated from Haverfordwest to Milford Haven, of course.)

  • Anoldman

    Wayne, have a look on OG’s site and you will see the answer to your question.

  • Goldingsboy

    Hallelujah, it looks as though the Western Telegraph has suddenly woken up to the idea that a healthy democracy needs a vigorous press.

    Miraculously for them, they have made Pensionsgate the lead story this week and continued with it, and associated stories, across pages 4 and 5. They even berate the Kremlin’s “wall of silence” and the failure of its commissars to answer its own questions following the report of the Wales Audit Office.

    Even the appeal of the County Council’s very lucrative advertising budget has not stayed the editor’s hand.

    Oh, and on page 10 the paper has deemed it important enough to inform its readers that the good burghers of Carmarthenshire have, unlike this county, set a date to discuss their own reactions to the WAO report.

  • Morlais

    In the real world e.g. if you work in industry, or you are a teacher or a cop and allegations are made against you then you are suspended whilst the allegations are investigated – it’s not admitting proof, guilt or innocence in any way, it just limits the chances of the alleged continuing whatever it is they are alleged to have done, as well as hiding any bad actions they may have committed – so why not here?

    Why is this situation being treated any differently?

  • Morgi

    I watched ‘Pawb a’i Farn’ and my telly was acting up. Was I correct and did Cllr John Davies say that, although the tax avoidance scheme costing us ratepayers nothing was held in BPJ’s office, and BPJ was present at the meeting and during this item, BPJ took no part?

    I wonder who called the meeting and who decided upon the venue.

    Come to think of it, some time ago, around the time of Huw George’s ‘taxman winning each and every way’ explanation, did someone suggest that the role of tax adviser status had fallen upon Cllr Davies’ shoulders?

    Sorry if my memory’s failing me a bit, I’m getting on a bit and I’ve had no SRAs to fall back on.

  • Malcolm Calver

    Cllrs Adams, Lewis and George should seriously consider resigning over this fiasco, but failing that they should at least stand down whilst an investigation into the whole affair is carried out.

    We have some very important European elections coming and Mr Bryn Parry-Jones has in the past organised the local elections here in Pembrokeshire and also other Welsh regional elections.

    I hope that the powers that be have contingency plans in place, should he stand down or be suspended, pending the outcome of the investigations into the pension fiasco.

  • Gareth Jones

    I notice that our Conservative MPs are keeping their heads well below the parapet. I wonder why?

  • Wayne

    Anoldman, thanks for the info, I did indeed find what I was looking for on OG’s site, and, as if by magic, the information is also on page 6 of this week’s Herald, cheers, Wayne.

  • John Hudson

    I see from that other website that the Leader has been using the Council’s (our) resources to email only his IPPG chums.

    I see also from the Pembrokeshire Herald that the Council’s Statutory Monitoring Officer “has confirmed that elected members are allowed to manage group business using council resources to facilitate group business”.

    The Council’s Constitution Model Code of Conduct for Members offers advice in Section 7. You must not use, or authorise others to use, the resources of your authority (ii) in breach of your authority’s requirements (v) improperly for political purposes or (vi) improperly for private purposes.

    However the Ombudsman helpfully issued guidance in April 2010 on the Code of Conduct.

    With regard to Section 7 the guidance states that you must not use the resources for political purposes, including party political purposes. You must have regard, if applicable, to any guidance issued by our local authority. Your authority may authorise you to use its resources for purely political purposes in connection with your authority’s business. However, where there is no policy or the policy is silent, you may not use these resources for any political or private purpose.

    So what policy or guidance has our authority specifically issued with regard to political use of its resources?

    This doesn’t seem a question that is open to interpretation, depending on which way the wind blows.

  • Goldingsboy

    Ah, so who monitors the Monitoring Officer?

  • Malcolm Calver

    The plot deepens. Looks like one of the Independent group must be up before the standards committee soon. The powers that be must be preparing the groundwork to let him/her off the hook. Try and keep free any future standards committee meeting dates.

  • John Hudson

    The functions of the Monitoring Officer are set out in Section 5 of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 as amended. (Reference from the Model Constitution to be considered sometime by our Corporate Governance Committee, before being put to Council for approval as part of the pathway to improvement.)

    Section 11.3.1 concerns ensuring the lawfulness and fairness of decision making.

    After consulting with the Head of Paid Service (CEO) and Chief Finance officer, the Monitoring Officer will report to full Council or to Cabinet if he or she considers that any proposal decision or omission would give rise to unlawfulness or if any decision or omission has given rise to maladministration. Such a report would have the effect of stopping the proposal or decision being implemented.

    The Chief Financial Officer is also under a similar obligation if he or she considers that any proposal decision or course of action will involve incurring unlawful expenditure.

    I am sure we all have confidence in PCC’s corporate management arrangements to ensure the proper administration of our council and impartial unbiased advice to councillors.

    I wonder if the Monitoring Officer and CFO will be reporting to Council about the pensions affair, with the CEO’s blessing, of course.

  • Keanjo

    John Hudson gives us an insight into the bureaucracy related to the duties of the Monitoring Officer which is obviously only the smallest tip of the bureaucratic iceberg in County Hall.

    If all of this is required to provide a few services to 120,000 people at a reasonable cost, the system is doomed and needs to be simplified very drastically if it is to survive.

  • John Hudson

    Keanjo, you do have to wonder why such statutory regulations and guidelines, developed over years, have been found to be necessary.

    When PCC and other authorities were reorganised, Statutory Guidelines were issued with non statutory advice. (This advice included the proper recording/minuting of decisions including those made by officers under delegated powers).

    Although the advice was based on best administrative practice, when it was reissued a few years ago now, Councillors were advised by legal officers that the council was required to have regard to such advice, but it was not necessary for the Council to follow it. So our councillors resolved to ignore it.

    I can’t work out who or what “The Council” is, or who is protecting who in this outfit. My view is that our best interests are not being served by this council’s corporate governance arrangements, including the current Constitution.

    When PCC started and it approved the Constitution, I was informed that it was not necessary for everything to be included. This of course introduces a degree of flexibility open to interpretation.

    It is interesting that OG has forced some changes on the interpretation of councillors’ rights to see documents, which clearly “the Council” would rather he did not have access to.

  • Keanjo

    John, your last paragraph begs the question: why are the powers that be so reluctant to allow an inspection of documents?

    I’m afraid secrecy breeds suspicion and the council tax payers of Pembrokeshire I speak to are certainly suspicious.

  • Morgi

    All the statutory guidelines/rules/regulations etc revealed to us by Mr. Hudson and no doubt likely to be used by Mr Kerr (is he still on the ratepayers’ payroll?) together with masses of legal argument will cloud the issues.

    As far as I am concerned, those involved in bringing about this abhorrent tax dodge scheme at a time when cost cutting measures were administered affecting those who were least able to afford them is indicative of at least ethical wrongdoing. Suspension now is necessary and if unethical acts are proved, dismissal.

  • Chas.

    To those who will undoubtedly read this site and who took part in Friday’s shameful proceedings and who still have a flickering of a conscience, just read Revelation chapter 21 verse 8 of the Bible. Particularly take note of the fate of ‘liars’ and ‘deceivers’ and change your ways before it IS too late.

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