Jacob Williams
Monday 23rd February, 2015

Rent-a-brief

Rent-a-brief

There’s been some keen discussion recently among the reader-comments here and elsewhere concerning the enthusiasm with which Pembrokeshire County Council’s officers appeal to external experts and senior legal professionals for advice and support.

Despite tough financial times for local authorities and the people they’re supposed to represent, and with cutbacks and closures left, right and centre, costly external expertise seems to buck the salami slicing trend. In fact with PCC’s custom alone in recent years it could be considered something of a growth industry.

In December I recounted how the wrong question was asked of an external barrister in a failed attempt to ambush councillors. Old Grumpy wrote about this episode and the way Cllr. Rob Summons was deprived of his starring role in a post on his blog yesterday.

Then at the end of last month I revealed how over £150k was lavished on legal and professional fees trying – and failing – to defend the unlawful pension opt-out ruse and dealing with the subsequent disciplinary and pay-off to see the back of former chief executive Bryn Parry-Jones.

After reading my revelations about the huge costs incurred by Eversheds’ lawyers for their role in BPJ’s exit, one councillor I spoke to recently justified his support for the golden handshake by telling me: “if Bryn hadn’t been paid-off in October, Eversheds’ fees could have bankrupted the council by now!”

The following can be added to the heap of examples of the sort of lengths that are being taken at the Kremlin – all with your money – to justify almost anything.


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The 2011 Wales Local Government Measure was a landmark piece of legislation introduced by the Welsh Assembly which tightened up the democratic and governance arrangements at Welsh authorities.

Among its provisions the Measure reinforced rights surrounding health and family absences, and dealt with a plethora of issues lower down the municipal food chain concerning community and town councils.

In county councils like PCC the Measure also removed the ruling party’s monopoly of overview and scrutiny committee chairmanships, which are supposed to scrutinise decisions made by the leader and cabinet (the executive.)

For the first time it also required each council to maintain an audit committee, which, as the name suggests, is a bit like a scrutiny committee to oversee and review the authority’s audit affairs.

PCC’s audit committee consists of four ruling IPPG members, two opposition members – me (unaffiliated independent) and Cllr. Guy Woodham (Labour.)

A requirement of the 2011 Measure is that this committee also has to have a non-councillor co-opted lay-member, appointed by the council, who has full speaking and voting rights.

The inaugural lay-member, when the committee was first set up after the 2012 council election, was John Evans MBE. With his wealth of experience in multinational electronics company Grundig, he was a very capable fellow.

Mr. Evans was free-thinking, self-determined and chaired the audit committee through its high-profile probe of the tendering irregularities and the council’s mishandling of the Pembroke Dock historic property restoration grant schemes.

Last summer Mr. Evans announced his shock resignation before the probe had concluded. He subsequently set out his reasons in a damning letter. He explained why his independence as lay-member and chairman was “totally compromised” by officers who did not share his quest for openness, transparency and scrutiny.

Mr. Evans’ resignation was a loss. But it was also one of a series of events and revelations during the latter half of 2014 which led to the departure of chief executive Bryn Parry-Jones, who he claims used threatening conduct towards him and others which left him feeling “shocked.”

You can read all about it – and the fiery letter – here.

The eventual successor to Mr. Evans’ vacant lay-member post was Peter Jones who hails from Swansea, of all places. Mr. Jones was appointed in very interesting circumstances last summer.

Not immediately, but some time after Mr. Evans’ surprise resignation, applications were invited from the community for this vacant lay-member’s role. It was advertised in the local press and on the council’s website with a closing date of July 8th.

What happened next is where it gets interesting. The story goes that four people applied, one of whom subsequently withdrew. Of the three remaining, one was considered unsuitable for the role.

Among the applicants was a former county councillor who was not unknown for having an independent streak.

So the chief finance officer undertook the unilateral decision to extend the application window by ten days, but failed to re-advertise this extension in the media as the original window had been.

According to a council spokesperson who responded to queries from the Pembrokeshire Herald at the time, the chief finance officer took it upon himself to extend the window “because he desired at least three suitable candidates for the Appointments Panel to consider.”

Short of telepathy or being tipped off, it remains unclear how anybody genuinely interested in the role was expected to know that the original application window had been extended, or even existed, let alone an extremely busy Mr. Jones fifty or so miles away.

We simply don’t know if Mr. Jones submitted an original application which got lost in the post before the original July 8th deadline, or if he was only alerted to the vacancy and applied during the extended period.

Whichever it was, the planets must have been positioned in just the right alignment for our man from Swansea because it transpires that he was the only person to take advantage of this ad-hoc extension by submitting an application.

Mr. Jones is a seasoned solicitor who, in 2011 when he took up his role in the vice-chancellor’s department at Swansea University was described by the Western Mail as “one of Wales’ most respected lawyers.”

For those wondering why one of Wales’ most respected lawyers would be interested in applying for the lowly audit committee role in PCC, it seems Mr. Jones has a soft spot for Pembrokeshire because he has former links to the council and other public bodies in the county including the port authority.

In 2006 Mr. Jones represented Cllr. John Allen-Mirehouse – who also sits as an IPPG member of PCC’s audit committee – during one of his brushes with the Ombudsman at the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park. A large chunk of his professional fees were footed by the public purse. Old Grumpy has written about Mr. Jones’ and Cllr. Allen-Mirehouse’s old acquaintance here.

The celestial serendipity held out for the late entrant because not only did Mr. Jones make the shortlist after applying but on 16th September he was appointed to the role by a hastily-convened urgency committee dominated by the ruling IPPG, consisting the crème de la Kremlin: the leader, Cllr. Jamie Adams; both of his (then) two deputies, Cllrs. Rob Lewis and Huw George; and the council’s chairman, Cllr. Tom Richards.

The other candidates on the interviewing shortlist were, presumably, the two applicants who weren’t deemed good enough by officers to be shortlisted on their own after the original deadline of July 8th. I wrote about this at the time, here.

Mr. Jones must’ve stuffed his briefcase with four-leafed clovers and lucky heather when he attended County Hall for his very first audit committee meeting on September 22nd because he immediately found himself being elevated to chair the committee by all of his committee colleagues, apart from me.

I just sat and watched it pan out in front of me exactly as I’d imagined it would. Nobody was once off cue and the same script saw Cllr. Mike James (IPPG) voted in as the committee’s vice-chair.

As part of its business on September 22nd, the committee ‘concluded’ its investigation into the Pembroke Dock grants scheme shenanigans. Mr. Jones made it clear how impressed he was with the officers’ thorough report and how keen he was for the authority to sign off the saga and move into a new era.

The report was a heavily sanitised and sugar-coated conclusion of, quite frankly, horrendous pitfalls in the authority’s officers’ administration of public cash.

Among the conclusions, staff pregnancy absences of all things shouldered a lot of the blame for extensive building restoration work being signed off as complete and thousands of pounds in building fees being splashed around for work which, allegedly, was simply never carried out.

Oh, and photocopies of cheque book stubs were accepted as evidence of defrayment to builders when the council’s procedure manual required bank statements as proof of payment.

On December 1st, for what would have been only his second jaunt down the M4 for his audit committee role, Mr. Jones tendered his apologies – busy or lost interest? Who knows!

In his absence the committee’s vice-chair, Cllr. Mike James, plonked himself in the chair without as much as a please or thank you, and began proceedings.

At this point I told the committee I wasn’t happy for Cllr. James to assume the chair in Mr. Jones’ absence because it would be against the law.

I pointed to a clause from the 2011 Wales Local Government Measure which states that the person who is appointed to chair the committee:

“…may be a member of the authority or a lay member but who must not be a member of an executive group.”

Clearly, as Cllr. James was a member of the ruling IPPG, he was classed as a “member of” the council’s sole “executive group.” And, as he was about to “chair the committee,” we were about to go off-piste.

This rule is in place to restrict the ability of the ruling group(s) to exert undue influence and control over this statutory committee which is charged with overseeing and scrutinising the council’s audit arrangements.

The thinking behind it is clear: if the committee is chaired by a person who is independent of the ruling set, then there is likely to be less opportunity for the exertion of pressure – political or otherwise – to sweep things under the carpet. Not to mention that the chairman has a casting vote.

I explained all of this.

You might expect that, at this early stage, before the law was trampled into the ground without a trace, an easy consensus would have been reached, Cllr. James would withdraw and the meeting could continue with a non-executive group member in the chair – either Cllr. Guy Woodham or myself.

None of it!

They called for the authority’s (then) acting head of legal and committee services, Claire Incledon, to come down from upstairs and explain why I was wrong and Cllr. James was not prohibited from chairing.

Mrs. Incledon told the committee that the rule I’d referred to wasn’t intended to apply to Cllr. James as he was not the chairman.

I pointed out that the legislation did not in fact apply this rule to “the chairman (noun) but to “the person who is to chair the committee” (verb.)

And, as nobody could disagree that Cllr. James was about “to chair the committee,” his continuation would surely be unlawful.

Nobody in the room did disagree that Cllr. James was about “to chair the committee,” but the advice was given and wasn’t revisited: the rule didn’t apply to what Cllr. James was doing, it applied solely to Mr. Jones’ appointment back in September.

Apart from the only other opposition member Cllr. Guy Woodham, all other committee members couldn’t have been quicker – or happier – to accept the advice.

Cllr. James’ buttocks remained where they started and he chaired the committee through to the meeting’s conclusion.

The following day I emailed the acting head of paid service with my concerns that the meeting had continued against the law, despite my highlighting what I felt was a clear conflict with one of the Measure’s requirements.

I also emailed the monitoring officer, Laurence Harding.

Although he justified it differently to Mrs. Incledon, within an email he sent me on 10th December Mr. Harding came to the same result: I was wrong and Cllr. James was able to “[chair] the meeting of the Committee in the absence of the Chairman,” because he was the committee’s appointed vice-chair.

Furthermore, he told me that the rule I pointed out did not apply to the circumstances on December 1st because Cllr. James, as vice-chairman, was “merely chairing that particular meeting of the Committee in the absence of the Chairman…”

The monitoring officer continued: “A Vice Chairman managing (chairing) a meeting of the committee can exercise the powers of the Chairman for this function but is not to be regarded as being elevated to the role of Chairman of the Committee” [original brackets.]

As part of his rationale, Mr. Harding also stated that: “The Chairman according to the Council’s Constitution must be a lay member of the Committee.”

I received an apology when I pointed out that the constitution says no such thing.

The email in which Mr. Harding set out this explanation was itself based upon the content of an internal email he had written and circulated among his colleagues exactly a week earlier, on December 3rd.

It wasn’t intended for my consumption, but I have a copy in my possession.

Both emails are almost word-for-word exactly the same but there’s one clear difference.

For whatever reason, Mr. Harding included the following paragraph in the email he circulated among his colleagues, but removed it from the version he sent me:

Laurence Harding email

The concluding sentence is sure to ring alarm bells among regular readers who will know all too well the ease with which the legal cavalry is called in by PCC, which never seems to bolster anything other than the instructing client.

Simon Morgan instructions

The instructions given to external barrister Simon Morgan at St. John’s Chambers, Bristol, which were accompanied by a copy of Mr. Harding’s unedited email

True to form, an external barrister’s report was commissioned on the matter at your expense from Simon Morgan at St. John’s Chambers in Bristol.

Mr. Morgan was asked for his opinion on this matter in the same email in which he was also asked to provide a “strong steer” for officers ahead of the December full council meeting to stymie the democratic attempt by Cllr. Mike Stoddart to allow councillors access to grant scheme documentation.

The council is a regular client of Mr. Morgan (who specialises in health and safety matters, not local government law) and his chambers, so it would be a struggle to describe the manner in which he was instructed and his advice as objective.

That said, Mr. Morgan spends the vast bulk of his six-page missive padding out an issue which is elementary. After going round the houses he basically says that Cllr. James’ vice-chairmanship is unable to override the part of the law I pointed to which requires the person who chairs the committee to be a non-executive group member.

In other words, Cllr. James may well hold the unofficial title of vice-chair, but it gives him no more entitlement to trump the Measure and chair the committee in Mr. Jones’ absence than the committee’s unofficial tea-boy.

So, with that bit out of the way, Mr. Morgan ventures down another avenue to explain why the rules hadn’t been broken by Cllr. James’ chairmanship on December 1st.

And this is the point where Mr. Morgan goes beyond parody. He claims that Cllr. James was able to chair the meeting because the rule I pointed out only prohibits him and his ruling party colleagues from chairing the committee.

If you don’t follow the concept, let’s try putting it another way – Mr. Morgan asserts that Cllr. James only chaired a meeting of the committee on December 1st.

Still not with him? Don’t worry. You’re in good company.

According to rent-a-brief, Cllr. James didn’t chair the committee on December 1st, he chaired the meeting. And as Cllr. James is only prevented from chairing the committee, and not meetings of it, the rule didn’t apply.

Comedic contrivances like this continue to provide object lessons for anyone naive enough to believe Yes Minister is a work of fiction.

On February 5th, the full six pages of rent-a-brief’s spiel was presented to a meeting of the audit committee – the first time we’ve met since that fateful day on December 1st.

Also present were two representatives from the Wales Audit Office who told the meeting that, having researched this topic since I brought it to their attention after the meeting on December 1st, they had conducted a review which identified three other Welsh local authorities whose audit committees had an executive group member as vice-chair (which is not prohibited) and one other which, like Pembrokeshire, has been chaired by an executive group member, which is prohibited.

The WAO representatives reported that the Welsh Government advised that mine and the WAO’s interpretation of the Measure’s requirement was correct (that Cllr. James should not have chaired the meeting) and that they intend to introduce further guidelines to supplement the law, setting out chairing requirements for audit committees.

So, effectively, whilst this extra advice might hammer home the intent of the legislation, the wording contained in the statute book is by all indications going to remain unchanged from that which I thumbed to on December 1st.

Which begs the question, to me, at least: how could anybody be so unclear as to the legislation’s intent?

Coming up with an explanation for the phrase “to chair the committee” – which leaves no doubt for Mr. Morgan that this includes chairing meetings of the committee – is sure to test even Cardiff Bay’s finest.

Whilst further guidance is evidently necessary for some to understand some of the 2011 Wales Local Government Measure’s requirements, I was perfectly able to understand that Cllr. James was prohibited from chairing the committee on December 1st, and why.

It’s to limit the ruling party’s control over this key statutory committee. So that they can’t ram one of their own into the driving seat like they were so keen to do on December 1st.

Unfortunately Mr. Harding doesn’t make clear in his email which part of “must not be a member of an executive group” he thinks someone lacking a “qualification which identifies a particular expertise in local government matters” might find difficult to understand.

Thanks to the eager acceptance by the IPPG committee members of their party colleague Cllr. James and his role on December 1st, as well as the advice that was given, this principle was not upheld. And it’s not the first time at the Kremlin that the system has been played to allow a committee meeting to go ahead in the manner which best suits the powers that be, for example: the time the senior staff committee met in the chief executive’s private office behind closed doors to introduce the unlawful pension opt-out ruse.

Although it wasn’t intended for my eyes, Mr. Harding is quite right to state that I am “unlikely” to unquestioningly accept his advice, but I certainly don’t do so because it “does not accord” with “my views.”

While members should listen carefully to officers’ advice, that doesn’t mean they should adopt the doctrine of officer infallibility, and on this occasion and others, my lack of “expertise in local government matters” has been no impediment to my ability to make sound interpretations of the law.

It wasn’t until I looked back on Mr. Harding’s email and on what Mrs. Incledon told the committee on December 1st that I realised just how much they both contradict the wacko theory provided by our Bristol-based counsel.

Mrs. Incledon told councillors:

“I’m not disagreeing with the fact that he’s actually here to chair the committee, that’s his role in relation to the fact that we don’t have a chairman available today, and the fact that as vice chair he is able to temporarily fill that position today, to chair the meeting.” [My emphasis.]

Yet the very basis of the external barrister’s argument was precisely that a.) Cllr. James did not chair the committee and that b.) Cllr. James’ vice-chairmanship gave him no right to assume the chairing role.

Wonders never cease at the Kremlin.

The week before last, Mrs. Incledon was promoted from her acting role by the senior staff committee to become permanent head of the council’s legal department.

Mr. Harding retires in the spring.

Carmarthenshire HeraldFor more on the audit committee meeting where rent-a-brief’s advice was discussed, I reproduce an article below with the kind permission of the Pembrokeshire Herald, whose reporter was the only press bench occupant.

Incidentally, my more easterly clientèle should be pleased to learn that Carmarthenshire will soon be getting the Herald treatment. I’m told next month the first edition of the Carmarthenshire Herald will be hitting the shelves. Similar shenanigans at the Kremlin on Towy are likely to provide plenty of fodder for stories like this:

Pembrokeshire Herald February 13th


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42 Comments...

  • Morgi

    This legal chairman re-definition by the ruling group reminds me of that question – when is the IPG not the IPG? Answer – when it’s the IPPG!

    The above principle was used by the Labour candidate who allegedly made a commitment not to join the IPG. I would also like to congratulate Ms Incledon on her promotion – I wonder, however, noticing the amount of ratepayers’ money spent on external legal advice, is her appointment necessary? (Likewise that independent Monitoring Officer).

  • Indepedant

    I’m not sure if it’s heartening or despairing to see that inquisitive County Councillors are treated with the same disdain and disrespect as normal citizens!

    Maybe it’s just one giant joke being played on Pembrokeshire, and Ant and Dec are going to appear soon and we all have a jolly good guffaw about how easily we have been taken in!

    How we laughed.

  • Ianto

    One must ask what is the motivation for employees to adopt opinions which fly in the face of common sense?

    The external legal advice depends on two inputs, the question asked and the result advised as preferable by the client.

    It seems the officers of PCC are incapable of posing a neutral question and never receive an opinion which cuts across their own, despite numerous instances of being proved wrong subsequently.

    How much are we paying for legal officers who cannot properly interpret the law, and external comfort blankets who only compound the original sin?

  • Peter Wigan

    Well done for smelling out these rats. As a lawyer I’m am quite shocked at the disingenuous behaviour of PCC’s in house and external legal advisers. No wonder lawyers command little respect with some of the public if this is what we do.

    We are fortunate to have yourself and Grumpy looking out for us. Power to your elbows.

  • Flashbang

    Just how much more needs to be revealed before the goings on at any council are properly investigated?

    Reading about the Wales Audit Office they appear to have their hands full just trying to keep on top of the illegalities across all councils. They seriously need to have officers embedded in Pembrokeshire to keep the IPPG on the straight and narrow.

    Who is pulling the strings behind these stunts and misdirections? Will anything ever come of these revelations?

    Quite frankly I’m sick of how much manoeuvring that takes place so the IPPG can push through its questionable agendas. Something needs to be done and soon.

  • Billy Dokar

    I hope they bring back Bryn as Monitoring Officer. At least he will carry on Laughable Larry’s tradition of self-service.

  • John Hudson

    Views or arguments expressed by non-qualified councillors are to be instantly discounted in favour of professional advice which councillors are required to have regard for when reaching decisions.

    Why do we employ our Councillors at a cost of over £1m a year if officers’ advice is to be slavishly followed? If a councillor is unable to form a view, or reach a reasonable personal decision on the basis of all relevant considerations, that may differ from unbiased professional advice, what is the point of being a councillor? We might just as well have The Council run by officers. Oh!

    The culture, integrity and ethos of this Council was said, and recognised, to be in need of change. Given recent traumatic events, you would have thought that a glimmer of doubt might have just penetrated even the most closed mind of a councillor who had been convinced of the infallibility of the old senior officer regime.

    Long live the IPG, the political wing of the Chief Officers’ Management Board, as it was once described.

    I thought that opposing legal views could only be determined in the courts, and that you paid for a legal opinion to support and strengthen your view, otherwise you could end up where you started; on the one hand, or on the other hand and still be none the wiser.

  • The Rock

    The question the monitoring officer appears to be asking is if PCC’s qualified incompetence is better than a councillor’s unqualified competence.

    The big problem is he does not seem to know the answer.

  • Jacob, I think you are having difficulty distinguishing between the bus driver and the person driving the bus.

    To someone lacking a “qualification which identifies a particular expertise in local government matters” these might appear to be one and the same person, but, clearly, if highly-paid lawyers take a different view, the odds are that you must be wrong.

    The only thing to be said in your favour is that, in every contested legal case, half the highly-paid lawyers turn out to be wrong.

  • Ianto

    It’s time the post of Monitoring Officer was removed from PCC, and other councils.

    The post should be directly employed by the WAO and removed completely from any direct managerial control by the authority being (or not being in some cases) subject to monitoring.

  • Kate Becton

    I am sure that there are many people who find this entire situation not only disturbing, but distressing. Have we got any idea, Jacob, how much this is costing to the detriment of services in Pembrokeshire?

    Whilst we must congratulate Ms. Incledon on her promotion, can we ask were there any other candidates – was the post advertised?

    Unfortunately I find it difficult to understand why someone who appears unable to give an opinion on Local Authority law without seeking an outside opinion on the basis that she had no idea what she was going to be asked – as evidenced by this Audit Committee mess – has been appointed to a very high and powerful position at PCC.

    Strikes me that it would be better to abandon the Legal Department altogether and simply seek outside opinion. Perhaps an about-to-be ex-MP would be preferable.

    Exactly what is the remit of the Legal Department? Who authorises the use of outside opinion? What on earth is going on?

  • Welshman 23

    Spot on Kate, what was the the process?

  • Angry of Fishguard

    Ianto is right, as someone who has worked in the legal profession for over 20 years, it’s all about the question asked and interpretation presented.

    If the legal department cannot understand the rules and regulations, and require constant advice from helpful Briefs, it is possible to prove whatever you want, in the hope that everyone is so confused, it is just accepted.

    If you keep digging the hole will be big enough for everyone to fall in. It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic.

  • Tony Wilcox

    Hi Kate, I’m seeking advice. I will get back to you…

  • John Hudson

    The council’s constitution, Part 3, Section 5 – Delegation to Officers, sets out the statutory responsibility of the Head of Legal Services. This includes instituting, defending or settling legal proceedings at common law or under any enactment, statutory instrument, order or bylaw conferring functions on the Council or in respect of any such proceedings.

    Usually directors have delegated authority to incur expenditure, providing it is within the council approved budget for their department. As most legal cases would arise out of the blue, and cannot be said to have been foreseen to include in an annual budget, I think legal advice should be sought to determine the precise method by which authority to incur expenditure on external legal advice is, or should be obtained.

    Then, there is the question of how the appropriate consultant is identified to provide the “right” advice and then contracted within the council’s contract procedure rules.

  • Kate Becton

    Hi Tony – I’m waiting with breath bated – only question is who is going to pay for the advice!

    Now I am slightly calmer and have re-read the blog, it strikes me that Ms. Incledon had used a very curious phrase in her e-mail i.e. the members who disagreed with her advice ‘took exception’ to it. This appears to indicate that the questioning of her opinion is a personal affront – despite the fact that the members were, in the end, right.

    It is surely the job of the Legal Department to give balanced, professional advice and allow Councillors to judge a situation – not to emphatically pronounce that one view is absolutely right and call upon ‘Simon’ to give a ‘strong steer’, i.e. back up my point of view to frighten the ‘plebs’ into submission.

    By the way Tony, Princess Tara goes at Doncaster on Saturday – we’re seeking advice!

  • Tony Wilcox

    Hi Kate, I will make a small Wager on her. As for the legal department, since the long overdue demise of the great redeemer, having to make decisions for themselves appears a bit tricky.

    What’s the odds on advice being sought and paid for from the great man himself?

  • Kate Becton

    John, if what you say is true, and I have no doubt that it is, does anyone have any idea if the Legal Department has operated within its budget, including external advice?

    If they have then their budget is totally out of hand, it seems to me that the cost of external legal advice, and associated expenses involved over the past eighteen months would have funded a Pembrokeshire space probe.

    People in Pembrokeshire are experiencing cuts in many areas – whilst the Council Tax is to rise by 4.2%, way beyond the rate of inflation – Jacob, have you any idea of the total spent on this advice over the last eighteen months; I know I should keep up, but I haven’t.

  • John Hudson

    Kate, I am afraid I do not think that the legal department operates with a budget.

    I attend the Public Inspection of PCC Accounts every year to inspect “all books, deeds, contracts bills vouchers and receipts” relating to the accounts. My starting point is the high level annual outturn report to Cabinet.

    The legal department’s budget is one of the central service budgets that are charged out over the services shown in the cabinet report. As such it is not identifiable and is not subject to any scrutiny by Overview and Scrutiny Committees.

    Councillors would have to know this was/is happening and even then would only get to be told about Legal Charges made within their O&S remit. Central Services are the responsibility of the Head of Paid Service and the Leader of the Council under their Corporate Governance remit.

    I have had legal invoices provided heavily redacted under the inspection process, subsequently provided un-redacted under separate Freedom Of Information rules.

    I have been told that the Central Service budgets have been subjected to 5% reductions, but this is neither quantified or monitored transparently and openly in any way. I have an FOI request to be provided with a list of central service budget information for 2014/15 original and revised budgets together with the 2015/16 budget, by service and recharges to services. Last year the auditor found that some recharges had been made on the basis of net expenditure recharges to gross service expenditure.

    At the Inspection, it is possible to get into the detail of budget lines as reported to cabinet. For example, in the case of markets I was able to get the actual cost of each market together with the central costs charged to “Markets” but unallocated to individual markets. It is then possible to relate the account’s information with the figures reported to cabinet.

    You might think that officers and councillors should be doing this when making decisions on the future of markets, especially to quantify and determine what will happen to the unallocated central service costs. Will these just get put back into the pot and reallocated over other services?

    Incidentally, I count myself as one of those without a “qualification which identifies a particular expertise in local government matters.” That does not preclude any of us from questioning matters, particularly where the council is so secretive, defensive and where councillors are mostly unwilling to challenge.

  • Kate Becton

    I have now read Mr. Morgan’s external legal advice to Mrs. Incledon, twice. I’m going back to Fifty Shades of Grey – which just about sums up the advice.

    There can be no doubt surely, that the person chairing the meeting takes on, for that period, the rights and responsibilities of the Chairman, just as in Mike’s analogy in his previous comment that the person driving the bus would have the same responsibilities in law as the bus driver.

    This lot are PPF (past praying for).

  • Richie S.

    Well done again Jacob. I hope if a Monitoring Officer is to be appointed he/she will be completely impartial and not an IPPG lapdog!

  • HJ, Fishguard

    I am not a lawyer but I have been reasonably well educated and have the ability to read and identify the majority of the salient facts.

    At the first meeting after the Audit Committee’s lay-member was appointed he was made the Chairman of the Committee and a member of the IPPG was made Vice Chairman. Surely it was at this time an objection should be made, by not contesting the possibility of the IPPG vice chairman acting as chairman you could be construed that all accepted that in absence of the Lay Auditor the vice chairman could take upon himself the Chairmanship.

    The rules state that a member of the Ruling Group cannot chair the Audit Committee so what use is a ruling party vice chairman to the Audit Committee if he cannot step into the breach when the Chairman is absent i.e. he becomes the temporary Chairman. Without this ability what is the point of a Vice Chairman. With this logic you can argue that the Vice Chairman was purely chairing the meeting and not the Committee. Just because the elected Chairman is not present at a the meeting doesn’t take away his position.

    I would be more concerned if in the absence of the Chairman that a ruling party Vice Chairman may be able to influence an outcome, in cases of a tied vote, by using his casting vote but on the other hand if the Vice Chairman was not a member of the ruling party then the ruling party would have similar concerns that the casting vote could be equally skewed.

    Perhaps the answer would be that any person chairing a meeting in the absence of the elected chairman should not have a casting vote and any tied vote would have to be revisited when the appointed chairman is in the chair.

  • Kate Becton

    Thank you John, I can see the difficulty – even if, to be honest, I am having difficulty understanding it!!

    I can see that challenging this budget would be difficult, but it must be possible to work out a figure that can be allocated to the Legal Department even if it is then reallocated to other budget headings, though I can see that this would not be of much use if there is no allocation under the specific heading of ‘Legal Services’. How on earth can anyone work out what a 5% reduction would mean if no one has any idea of what the original 100% was?

    I suspect that I am showing myself up for my lack of understanding of what I find to be a very confusing situation – still I suppose this works to the advantage of Senior Officers – who, presumably can simply spend money without any accountability.

    Anyway John, thank you once again for your explanation, the confusion remains entirely my own.

  • Observer

    As Kate Becton observed earlier, what is disturbing about this is that the acting head of legal services seems not to have been seeking independent legal advice, but justification for the actions she had already taken (see her instructions in the email above).

    A request for independent legal advice would have been phrased in hypothetical terms e.g. In terms of the legislation, who would be qualified to chair the meeting if the appointed chairman tendered his apologies and the vice chairman was a member of an executive group.

    “The non-aligned members took exception to this and furthermore took exception to my advice” seems to be giving the “independent” barrister a “strong steer”.

    And as it is the acting head of legal services who decides which barrister’s services will be engaged, now and in the future, there must be an element of he who pays the piper calls the tune.

  • Hi HJ, I suspect your point is one which will influence the committee in the future, however it isn’t against the law for a ruling group member to become vice-chair, but it is for one to chair a meeting, which was the point at which I objected.

    If I wasn’t able to convince the audit committee’s IPPG contingent to take evasive action when I actually caught the meeting in the act breaking the law, I’m not sure how you think they could have been open to persuasion that it would be helpful if they didn’t stick one of their own in the vice-chair!

    Mrs. Incledon similarly suggested that this should have been thought of upon Cllr. James’ appointment as vice-chair, but it misses the point.

    It erroneously implies that, by virtue of the vice-chairmanship, a person who would be prohibited by statute from chairing the committee would be able to do so in the absence of the appointed chair. Even the external barrister agrees this would override the statute – so it must be the case!

    Incidentally, the vice-chairmanship is only a local choice, a courtesy role out of convenience, which isn’t mentioned once in the statute so it has even less legitimacy than some might assume.


    Kate, I don’t know how much has been spent on legal advice in the past eighteen months, but thanks to Cllr. Tony Brinsden, pretty soon you might have all these facts – and more – at your disposal.

    The agenda for March’s full council has been published and Tony asks how many times counsel’s opinion has been sought on legal matters since the 2012 election, how much this has cost, and the reasons why each opinion was sought.

    Should be interesting!

  • John Hudson

    I would have thought it would be easy to collate a budget figure from all the individual central services where costs are reallocated to individual “user” services. If such figures are available, they have never been published, and councillors are oblivious to this significant aspect of the council’s budget. Possibly, as they fall within the remit of the CEO to “manage” the council’s operations, these are exempt from any scrutiny by councillors.

    I suspect in the case of legal expenses there is a “core budget” based on estimated in house staffing costs, the cost of its accommodation (another recharge from a central office accommodation budget based on area occupied or staff cost) and a budget for office consumables. However, how can a budget for outside legal consultancies be estimated at the start of the year?

    The need for this has to be judged as each case arises, on its merits, one would hope. If it is considered necessary, there are judgements to be made on who to consult, the estimated cost of the consultancy, and if there isn’t provision in the council approved budget, how it will be funded.

    These matters are determined, behind closed doors by officers. I would assume that somewhere in the council there is an audit trail of decisions. As regards the money, this could be met either by savings elsewhere within in the overall council approved budget, or by use of the reserves. (All this can be done by officers under their delegated powers to incur expenditure).

    It looks as if the external legal advice sought by PCC is mainly fire fighting, to support decisions already made through the council’s administrative process (e.g. the two care home fees judicial reviews, CEO pension/pay and now the Audit Committee).

    There is a special responsibility placed by statute on specified officers (the finance officer, the head of legal and I think the monitoring officer) who are required to report if it appears that a decision about to be made by the Council is unlawful. Such a step has to be undertaken in consultation with the head of paid service. The grants fiasco also gave rise to the false assurance given by the council’s internal audit service.

    I think the question should be:- whether there are sufficient vetting procedures in place, to ensure that dubious, potentially unlawful decisions are not taken. Perhaps the audit committee should look into this?

  • HJ, Fishguard

    One rebuttal and I will promise not enter a further discussion on this point even though, as people who know me will state vehemently, that I enjoy a good argument even when I am wrong.

    I completely agree that it is not illegal for a ruling party member to be vice chairman of the Audit Committee, but nearly all will agree that the main object of having a vice chairman is that he/she can take the chair when the elected Chairman is absent. Without that ability what is the point of a vice chairman. Using Grumpy’s analogy both the bus driver and the driver of the bus must have a driving licence to make it legal.

    In a democratic world, where the majority hold sway, the people who voted for a ruling party vice chairman should have realised that they were creating a situation where the vice chairmanship could and probably would become unlawful.

    For the dissenters to have a point the minutes of the meeting when the appointment was made should have clearly stated that the reasons why they voted against was that an unlawful act would automatically occur the first time the elected chairman was not present and the elected vice chair took his place. If the minutes do not show this then the dissenters’ case is considerably weakened.

    Lawyers are not infallible, taking Grumpy’s view, in court 50% are right and 50% are wrong, not a good track record.

  • Keanjo

    Private Eye could grab the story under the heading ‘uncertain lady seeks a strong steer’!

  • HJ, the relevant legislation is to be found in S 83 of the Local Government Measure (Wales) 2011:

    83 Proceedings etc

    (1) An audit committee is to appoint the person who is to chair the committee (who may be a member of the authority or a lay member but who must not be a member of an executive group).

    (2) If there are no opposition groups, the person who is to chair the audit committee may be a member of an executive group but must not be a member of the local authority’s executive.

    Executive = Cabinet and executive group is any political group which has members in the Cabinet i.e IPPG.

    Elsewhere, the legislation restricts the number of Cabinet members on the committee to one. These provisions, as the guidance on the Measure explain, are designed to prevent the audit committee being seen to be under the control of the Leadership.

    The slender thread on which the council’s case hangs is that the words “chair the committee” do not include chairing meetings of the committee. I can’t think that, giving the words of the statute their ordinary meaning, this interpretation has any merit whatsoever.

    At the meeting on December 2, “the person” (singular) who had been appointed to chair the committee (Lay member Mr Peter Jones) tendered his apologies which meant there was no one present who had been appointed to chair the committee – Cllr Mike James had been appointed vice-chairman but that didn’t make him the person appointed to chair the committee and, indeed, he couldn’t be so appointed because the legislation (“must not be a member of an executive group”) forbids it.

    S83(2) is a saving clause which covers the situation where the only members present are members of an executive group and in those circumstances a member of an executive group may be appointed to chair the committee, but, even then it cannot be a Cabinet (Executive) member under any circumstance.

  • Deno

    I agree with most of the comments attached. It may help if we all took time out to respond to the Welsh Government white paper “Reforming Local Government”.

    It’s time to remove the cancer within PCC management.

  • Timetraveller

    I have long maintained that Legal was BPJ’s enforcement department, this post illustrates it well. The only internal check on it, short of possible administration, is the council itself. I spoke to a councillor recently who simply thought that the Head of Legal was making errors, as if! He needs to develop a much more suspicious mindset (like Jacob, Mike et al).

    Unfortunately most IPPG members have been bought and paid for and would find no merit in adopting such a mindset, as long as their personal culpability was covered by the “professional” advice offered. That leaves some form of administration on the cards if only to sanitise PCC ahead of any possible merger with Ceredigion.

    As this is an orchestrated service, involving, as in the case of the PD grants scheme, possible criminal activity, some of these people are potentially leaving themselves open to conspiracy and professional standards issues with their regulating bodies or worse.

    The Ministerial Board failed to delve into this culture at County Hall, any officer implicated got away with making “mistakes”. One can see how the police are reluctant to dig deep.

    Legal has been steeped in a culture of covering up or avoiding adverse scrutiny for years, with costs buried deep in the woodwork. There seems to be significant cooperation or transferring of legal services with Carmarthen CC. (Funny how they adopted the same illegal pension scheme.)

  • Tony Brinsden

    I have amended my question to cover the last eighteen months only because there were some difficulties in covering the whole period from 2012. However I shall revisit the earlier years at a future time.

  • Barrie Woolmer

    The Audit Committee should have voted on a legal member present to chair the meeting in the absence of the Chair.

  • Keanjo

    Why didn’t the Committee Clerk check with Mr Peter Jones on his availability before arranging a date? Just a thought!

  • Goldingsboy

    Mike’s observation, which I have only just come across, that “in every contested legal case, half the highly-paid lawyers turn out to be wrong”, is spot on until it is overturned on appeal, and then it’s the turn of the other half.

  • Kate Becton

    John, I think the idea that there maybe an Audit trail for the budget for Legal Services is somewhat ambitious – after all, within living memory, the Chief Officers Management Board did not take minutes at their meetings. I cannot believe that yet another ‘constitutional error’ has been made – if the legal department cannot work out the constitution what CAN it do?

    I see from OG’s latest post that, once again, external legal advice is to be sought on the vexed question of pay for Senior Officers – when will this ever end? Have any Councillors seen the questions asked on this subject; are we in for another ‘strong steer’?

  • Timetraveller

    Kate, I take it that “constitutional error” means anything but an actual error. I am pretty sure that “legal” can indeed work out the constitution, at least as far as stopping any over curious councillors getting away with interfering with the smooth running of this authority.

    As every loyal IPPG member knows, this is the smoothest running authority in Wales, if not the world. It invests in the most expensive legal advice it can procure to ensure this remains so, and it doesn’t make mistakes. Appeals are just for losers (about 5 years down the road.)

    This is the most “joined up” local government team in the world outside Russia and North Korea, only carefully selected officials are allowed to join it, many after years of in house training to absorb its distinctive management culture.

  • Tafflad

    Maybe you’re looking in the wrong place for an answer as to costs, it seems that the legal eagles, allegedly paid to advise the council in legal matters, seem in the main to go out to the same external advisors, i.e. Eversheds, Mr Kerr, pronounced car, and I dare say a minimal list of other advisors.

    The question then should be placed to the Finance department for the expenditure to these, either company, or individuals. Even the most basic of accountancy packages will be able to supply the expenditure figures within certain dates.

    Maybe I am being over simplistic but the information will be there, getting it may be a whole different kettle of fish.

  • Welshman 23

    Having watched yesterday’s webcast from the Kremlin it seems that they have not learned anything from the BPJ fiasco. They want to back a new monitoring officer. Mr ‘let me look at the regulations’ Westley seems like another BPJ in waiting.

    Jamie Adams forgot he shook hands with the possible new monitoring officer. There are some councillors who are mute and never say anything, Kidney, Edwards etc etc. Then there is the nodding vice chairman Wynne Evans, you see his actions when the chairman speaks it’s hilarious. And finally Mr Chairman himself, he is so disorganised as he is seen shuffling through the meeting schedule. Hilarious.

  • Timetraveller

    Nobody has learned anything and nothing has changed, and won’t unless the IPPG either collapses or reforms itself (How?)

    Welshman, from your observation of the characters at the meeting it is certainly not an authority run by its councillors, which begs the question who does run it?

    No appointment in this authority is by accident, if Westley was likely to be a new dawn, he is unlikely to have got the job.

    I know some councillors in the opposition who think a new monitoring officer will be a new dawn – it would certainly be a good thing if the new monitoring officer was impartial and exhibited integrity, but I wonder how likely that is.

    As for the legal department’s accounts? So many places to unload the legal bills, for example Highways might pay for a case involving roads. So many ways for a lawyer to work by arrangement, no win no fee for example, or maybe a nominal fee, but pay day in some situations. There also seems to be significant joint work with Carmarthenshire CC and vice versa.

    The only certainty is that no individual in legal will pay bills themselves or even have a liability, even though substantial bills were incurred effectively looking after the interests of one individual, the departing CEO.

  • Keanjo

    Just watched a few hours of the webcast of Thursday’s CC meeting. What a pantomime. Apart from a few members, Paul Miller, Jacob Williams, Tessa Hodgson, David Lloyd, Tony Brinsden, Viv and Mike Stoddart and a few others, the Council were like headless chickens.

    The arguments were long, tedious and repetitive and the business should have been concluded in half the time with half decent chairmanship. The three on the top table were a comic turn on their own. Most of the time was spent shuffling reams of papers and on a few occasions shuffling their neighbours’ papers with their own.

    It really is hilarious and anyone with an odd hour or seven should tune in.

  • China Teapot

    IPPG – Independent Purse Pound Grabbers.

    What do you expect from them? To bring honesty, truth, and real values to the cause…I think not.

    Morecambe and Wise were brilliant comedians, but some of our Council are possibly showing they are trying to be funnier. IPPG members you need to join a party that has a political agenda or at least make one of your own, at the moment you ARE Yes men (persons) when you are told and have no backbone…new elections will be a total shambles or farce if you continue like this.

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