Jacob Williams
Thursday 25th September, 2014

Pull up a chair

Pull up a chair

Monday saw the resumption of the extraordinary audit committee investigation into the council’s mishandling of public cash via dubious grant awards for historical properties in Pembroke Dock.

The last time the extraordinary committee met was in January. In February the council called in the police when evidence was uncovered by Cllr. Mike Stoddart which showed favourable treatment had been given to the successful building contractor in a supposedly competitive tendering process. The council subsequently referred a whole dossier to the police containing numerous leads. It was decided at a regular audit committee meeting on 24th April that council officers would conduct a ‘management review’ of number 29 Dimond Street pertaining to the internal management elements rather than the potential criminal aspects, and report to a reconvened meeting – which was Monday.

The progress of this internal investigation was painstakingly slow, and things weren’t helped when the committee’s independent lay-member chairman, John Evans MBE, announced his shock resignation at the end of May for some explosive reasons, including the reluctance of some officers to abide by his quest for openness, transparency, and above all – accountability.

The reports and presentations to Monday’s meeting on the probity of the council’s administration of the Commercial Property Grants Scheme hold that “weaknesses in supervision and management due to vacancies and workloads,” staffing issues including maternity leave, and the fact that none of the numerous independent audits had found anything wrong, which were to blame for the misuse of public cash.

If you don’t think this adequately explains why grant payments were signed off for restoration work which was not done to the correct standard or not done at all, then you’re not alone.

Oh, and the star excuse was that the documentation governing the historic property grant scheme was not up to scratch, or: “CPGS Procedure Manual not robust (with hindsight)” as it was succinctly put in one slide of a presentation delivered by the director of development, Dr. Steven Jones.

Whilst I see no problem in improving the CPGS manual, in my opinion it was sufficient, and to blame it in large part for many of the irregularities that took place under the council’s watch, simply doesn’t wash with me. It’s hard to see how public cash being dished our for building restoration work not done or work that wasn’t even eligible for grant aid in the first place, can be blamed on the procedure manual – it was up to the job in this respect, it was just not followed.

I understand that the council (which administered the awards and distributed the money) is being forced by the Welsh European Funding Office (where the council got the money from) to repay at least £125,000 of grant money that was paid out under the CPGS in respect of irregular grant payments for properties associated with Mr. Cathal McCosker, and that the council hopes to recoup most of this from him. However, the authority won’t be unable to reclaim a 9p in the pound service charge. This means that even if the money is recovered – which is a big if – the council will still be 9p in the pound down on every pound of reclaimed grant money – estimated at Monday’s meeting to be around £30,000 – and could be many more thousands down again, should the efforts to reclaim the grant money from Mr. McCosker not succeed.

I should add that, as Monday was the first time the audit committee has met since the resignation of Mr. Evans, the first item of business considered by us members was to appoint a new chair.

Sitting alongside me, the only other opposition councillor of the audit committee is Labour’s Cllr. Guy Woodham, who proposed the new kid on the block, Peter Jones.

There were no other nominations, and, apart from me, all other committee members voted for him to become chairman. Fresh from his victory, Mr. Jones quickly assumed his position at the end of the table for the rest of the day.

Since Monday’s meeting, the author of that other website, Cllr. Mike Stoddart, has revealed that Mr. Jones, whose elevation to the audit chairmanship was supported by committee member Cllr. John Allen-Mirehouse, acted as Cllr. Allen-Mirehouse’s legal representative during an Ombudsman investigation into an allegation that Cllr. Allen-Mirehouse had failed to declare a prejudicial interest.

This relates to a meeting of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park authority, of which Cllr. Allen-Mirehouse was then a member, where a new ‘homes for locals’ policy was being debated which sought to make housing for Pembrokeshire people more affordable.

Old Grumpy was the complainant to the Ombudsman in that instance, alleging that Cllr. Allen-Mirehouse had land that could be affected by the policy and that he should have declared an interest. Documents revealed over on his website show that some of the legal fees Mr. Jones racked up in defending Cllr. Allen-Mirehouse were the subject of a (partly) successful application for ex post-facto indemnification from the national park’s coffers.

However, Cllr. Allen-Mirehouse failed to declare an interest when his application for legal indemnity came before national park members, and found himself on the receiving end of a further Ombudsman’s report which concluded that he had breached the code of conduct for failing to declare a prejudicial interest but that no further action should be taken.

But let’s get back to the appointment process recently used for the vacant lay-member position on the county council’s audit committee.

This is where the story gets interesting, because Old Grumpy – who you may already have noticed features quite a bit in this post – has been looking into it and has a rather different interpretation of the legal requirements when it comes to making such appointments to public offices.

He believes that the process followed by County Hall in filling Mr. Evans’ vacancy was unconstitutional and unlawful, and for the same reason, so too was the process used to appoint Mr. Evans back in 2012.

Old Grumpy’s success rate when challenging legal points with council officers is excellent, though the fact that the appointment process steamed through to a conclusion last week suggests he hasn’t had a total victory. Yet.

Originally it was intended that a three-person panel would have the powers to appoint the new member. This is what happened when Mr. Evans was appointed in 2012. Through correspondence with the monitoring officer, Laurence Harding, Cllr. Stoddart argued that full council didn’t give the panel such powers and it wasn’t lawful for it to hold such powers in any case.

It meets in secret, produces no agenda or minutes, and isn’t a properly constituted committee or sub-committee of the authority.

It seems that the council agreed to some extent, and things were then changed so that the panel would shortlist and make a recommendation of only one candidate to the authority’s urgency committee which would have the final say on just that one individual. This didn’t happen when Mr. Evans was appointed in 2012, he was appointed by the panel. Though it seems in law that such functions can only be lawfully delegated by full council to a committee, a sub-committee, or an officer, which the panel is not, so any involvement of the panel in the process – even to shortlist – would still be unlawful.

We’ll revisit this arcane panel in just a moment.

In a nutshell, questions lurk over almost every step of the process followed by County Hall in order to fill Mr. Evans’ lay-member vacancy following his resignation – if he had a post to resign from, that is!

Firstly, the position was advertised online and in the local press with the closing date for applications listed as 8th July.

JW understands during this period four candidates applied for the post, but for some reason officers didn’t believe enough of them came up to scratch, so took the decision to extend the application window by ten days.

How anybody was supposed to find out that the time had been extended is something of a mystery, because accordingly, the vacancy wasn’t re-advertised anywhere, only the date on the council’s website ad was amended.

During this extra time only one extra application came in.

It was from a Mr. Peter Jones, of Swansea, who owns a holiday home in Saundersfoot.

In an article going back to 2011, when he joined Swansea University’s vice chancellor’s department, the Western Mail described Mr. Jones as “one of Wales’ most respected lawyers.”

And Mr. Jones has fingers in many pies. He remains heavily involved at Swansea University, but for many years before that, he told councillors on Monday, one of his key clients as a senior partner at Morgan Cole law firm was Milford Haven Port Authority. He also said that he had “dealt with” Pembrokeshire County Council “from time to time.”

Following the end of the extra ten days, Mr. Jones’ CV, and, ostensibly those of the other candidates, were considered by the aforementioned panel. This consists of council chairman Cllr. Tom Richards from the ruling IPPG, Conservative member from Milford Haven Cllr. Stan Hudson, and the west Wales quango queen, Mrs. Lynette George. These panel members were all nominated, unopposed, at the 2012 AGM by Cllr. Jamie Adams minutes after he became leader of the authority during the same meeting.

Of the four applications received, the panel interviewed only three candidates. In secret, the trio concluded that our man Mr. Jones stood ahead of the rest and should be appointed, and their recommendation made its way to a hastily convened meeting of the authority’s urgency committee to ratify the appointment, last Tuesday.

According to last week’s Pembrokeshire Herald, independent (unaffiliated) member of the urgency committee Cllr. Tessa Hodgson took the opportunity to speak out against the authority’s closed door mentality and the process followed.

She questioned the point of the urgency committee and said its members were “being asked to rubber stamp” the appointment of Mr. Jones “with just three paragraphs of information,” and no information at all relating to the other shortlisted applicants.

“There is no information. We don’t know the calibre of the other applicants, the person or job specification. How can we ratify a decision if we don’t have any information?” she said.

Alas, her queries landed on deaf ears, as did her suggestion that the CVs of the applicants should have been available to committee members. Similarly, protestations over the legality from the only other opposition member present, Cllr. Paul Miller, and his claim that “this authority seems to delegate anything it likes to panels” doesn’t seem to have made any difference either.

Mr. Jones’ appointment was approved with votes of support solely from the ruling party’s councillors on the urgency committee, they were: leader, Cllr. Jamie Adams; cabinet member, Cllr. Rob Summons; deputy leader, Cllr. Rob Lewis and the council’s chairman, Cllr. Tom Richards. The leader’s big guns. The leader’s reliable guns. The leader’s well-oiled guns.

Mr. Jones’ application may well have been head and shoulders above the rest, but, thanks to the appointment route operated by County Hall, we may never know just how far behind him the other applicants lagged.

What’s more, apart from Cllr. Richards who served on the shortlisting panel and the urgency committee, neither do those who appointed him.

I intend to return to the Pembroke Dock grant scheme affair at a future date.

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  • John Hudson

    It seems that the Council’s rules are there not to promote any thought of democratic participation by the majority of Councillors elected on independent tickets without any collective mandate.

    Rather for this to be excluded by careful manipulation in drafting, the imposition of ad-hoc rules and finally by interpretation.

  • Quill

    It’s hard to think of what this rotten council will try and get away with next. They treat us and the councillors like plebs.

    Making it worse is they are fully aware of the apparent illegalities in the appointments process because Cllr Stoddart has told them.

    What bothers me is firstly how this busy Peter Jones fellow (from Swansea, remember?) found out about this vacancy, but secondly and most importantly, why on earth he was interested in it and applied.

    Hasn’t he got enough on his plate? Well, maybe he has now!

  • CJ

    I’m hardly surprised to hear that minutes of a meeting were changed. Years ago I had a serious (I thought) meeting with the head/s of the LEA about severe school bullying issues. It was covered up so I took my complaint to the Ombudsman.

    The LEA sent doctored copies of the minutes taken at the interrogation/meeting. This was reported to WAG and the Ombudsman (written evidence) neither did a thing about it, it was fobbed off or totally ignored.

    There are some people in PCC who seem to have total protection and it isn’t just BPJ – the head of LEA (Gerson Davies) would still have been in charge had it been up to BPJ. It is SICK.

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