Jacob Williams

Rotten boroughs

Wednesday 23rd December, 2015
Rotten boroughs

At about this time for the past couple of years I’ve invited the public to vote for their Golden DonQui, based upon the year’s council antics.

This year I fear Cllr. Alison Lee’s 24-carat candidacy would render a shortlist for the gong pointless.

So I’ll bid farewell to 2015 differently.

Earlier this month the Wales Audit Office published its special corporate assessment of the council.

It wasn’t total doom and gloom nor something to celebrate, concluding that the authority “cannot yet provide adequate assurance that its arrangements are capable of delivering its priorities and improved outcomes for citizens.”

The WAO spent April doing fieldwork, practically embedded in the authority for the month. In response to their publication a fortnight ago, the council’s leadership said the WAO’s analysis is a fair snapshot of the council in April but that lots of water has flowed over the Cleddau weir since.

I suspect we’ll be hearing more from the auditors in the new year on another topic, but this corporate audit has some interesting observations.

The report says “decision making is not consistently transparent,” and notes that the IPPG administration “has no specific manifesto, or statement of intent.”

Cabinet members are “rarely asked questions or held to account” when sitting before so-called scrutiny committees, meetings of which generally add “little value” to items under consideration.

The practice of council officers informing committees via verbal updates with nothing in writing was observed and deemed “not transparent.” Some criticism, also, that “members of the public are not yet able to ask questions” – something which could and should have been adopted when I proposed it two years ago.

The council’s human resources department came in for some stick. They say this central service lacks “vision and capacity,” has a “lack of direction” is devoid of “performance measures” and has “no HR Strategy in place.”

Crikey!

The WAO has long-running concerns over the administration of the council’s property portfolio and asset management to achieve best value with and for public funds.

Members are also “not involved enough” in the cost reductions process, nor “provided with enough information about poorly performing areas,” limiting their ability to challenge services.

2016 may see us councillors return to the classroom as the report says PCC: “will also need to develop the skillsets and capacity of members and senior managers” on financial and service performance.

While there may be room to broaden ‘skillsets’ I fear the capacity of some is beyond hope.

And it seems even the WAO agrees with me on that. In the scathing PCC special inspection report they published in 2013, on the topic of councillors challenging officers’ reports as well as the council’s service provision and ‘ways of working,’ they said: “In our view, few members demonstrate the motivation or capacity to do so.”

Maybe April wasn’t a vintage month on the antics front (best behaviour and all that) but the report is rather bland – sapless even – and the jargon is consummately corporate.

It could have gone much further and deeper in considering officer and member capacity and probity, which many see as one of the biggest obstacles facing a council with “the need for fundamental culture change.”

The conclusions of an academic report on council corruption I wrote about in October may offer some insight into – or at least invite comparisons with – the state of Pembrokeshire’s politics, but today I present some conclusions from an entirely different league.

It’s a landmark legal case whose 200-page ruling could keep legal thriller fans joining the dots for hours over Christmas – and better than any fantasy novel, this eye-popper is free!

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The legal case featured below came to a conclusion on April 23rd this year, St. George’s Day.

It’s the downfall of the corrupt mayor of London’s borough of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, whose rigged 2014 election victory was challenged on several grounds amid commonly-known allegations of corruption, bribery, undue pressure and racial stirring.

The election followed a long and eventful period of bizarre and unethical politics in the borough council – all under Rahman’s leadership – which had even seen the then community secretary, Eric Pickles, send in the commissioners.

Mr. Rahman, formerly a family solicitor before turning professional hoodwinker, had a tumultuous history with the Labour party, which features strongly in the tale. He had been a Tower Hamlets councillor under their banner since 2002, cabinet member since 2006, serving as leader from 2008.

But 2010 saw Tower Hamlets residents vote for their inaugural directly-elected mayor, and in his fraught bid to secure the party’s nomination involving various spats and legal challenges, the Labour executive eventually intervened and installed a rival candidate to contest the mayoralty.

So Rahman decided to launch an independent bid for mayor with support from, among others, the area’s recently-defeated MP, George Galloway.

Mr. Rahman won the mayoral election overwhelmingly, leaving the Labour party’s candidate a distant second. He served a controversial term which sparked several prominent exposés of his cronyism, despotic leadership style, and his way with public money.

Among some of the stories reported over Rahman’s four-year term were the huge sums he spent on his ‘vanity office’ and dispatching his personal taxpayer-funded chauffeured Mercedes to collect and deliver his laundry.

The mayor came up for re-election in 2014, and contested this time as the leader of a new party he had set up, called Tower Hamlets First.

Rahman went on to retain the mayorship convincingly, amid a voter turnout almost twice that of 2010 – and a similar number of irregularities!

The election was challenged by four petitioners who set out a string of allegations including impersonation in polling stations, intimidation and undue influence against the electorate including religious threats, postal vote fraud and unlawful payment of canvassers.

The petition was almost entirely successful and the election court – headed by deputy high court judge Richard Mawrey QC, acting as an election commissioner – found Mr. Rahman and his chief crony Cllr. Alibor Choudhury guilty of several outlawed electoral practices.

The petitioners, a group of local residents sick of Mr. Rahman’s corruption, were commended for their bravery by Mr. Mawrey having taken great personal and financial risk mounting the challenge under the 1983 Representation of the People Act.

Criticising the archaic election petition process as “obsolete and unfit for purpose,” he said they had taken on the “arduous and extremely expensive” task entirely at their own cost and faced the “risk of bankruptcy if they fail to surmount the Grand National sized fences placed in the path of Petitioners,” and questioned: “Why do we leave it to the victims of electoral fraud to go it alone?”

We should be grateful they did, as the St. George’s Day ruling confirmed how Rahman and Choudhury had driven a coach and horses through electoral law, both were found guilty of corrupt and illegal practices and had their 2014 elections – as mayor and councillor respectively – voided by the judge.

Stripping them from office immediately, he said the pair were “caught out in obvious and, ultimately, unnecessary falsehoods” and imposed a five-year ban from elective office. Rahman was also landed with a £250k bill for legal costs.

Much of Mr. Rahman’s unlawful conduct in the 2014 election was in discrediting his main Labour party opponent. Mr. Mawrey said that Mr. Rahman conducted a “ruthless and dishonest campaign to convince the electorate his rival John Biggs was a racist.”

The judge said Mr. Rahman not only played “the race card” but was also “determined to play the religious card,” targeting Tower Hamlets’ large Muslim population with what he called a “stark message: ‘Islam is under threat: it is the religious duty of all devout Muslims to vote for Mr Rahman and his party’.”

The petitioners, represented by barrister Francis Hoar, told of large, rowdy but well-organised mobs of Rahman’s sympathisers “haranguing voters” at polling stations and “putting as much pressure as they could” on those they thought “appeared to be Muslim” to “do their duty to their community and their faith by voting for Mr Rahman and THF.”

Witnesses testifying for Mr. Rahman’s defence, however, “painted a picture of a jolly family atmosphere at the polling stations with everyone in high spirits, excited to be voting, friendly and welcoming.”

The judge saw right through it, not hesitating to conclude that Rahman and his defence team had simply “rounded up a large number of sympathetic voters” to put their names to pro-forma witness statements containing “polished English prose.”

During cross-examination it became clear many possessed only a ‘rudimentary’ command of English and were unable to understand words they claimed to have written in their witness statements, when read back to them.

Amid laughable courtroom encounters the judge said it was necessary to treat many of Mr. Rahman’s witnesses with a “considerable degree of caution.”

One “insisted on an interpreter while making it quite clear that he understood English perfectly well” and another “gave a graphic account of how he had attended a polling station to cast his vote and found it a haven of tranquillity” but was confronted with “absolutely incontrovertible evidence” that he cast his ballot by post well before polling day.

The judge wasn’t impressed, and found that Mr. Rahman was responsible in law for the “mob of excitable, politically committed, young men” outside polling stations engaged in behaviour well beyond “the acceptable limits of political canvassing,” and said he had ‘no doubt’ that Rahman and Choudhury “knew exactly what their supporters were up to and took no steps to calm them down.”

Mr. Mawrey’s 200-page decision is a classic. Somewhat reassuring in these days of political correctness and hilariously entertaining if it wasn’t so serious.

With disclaimers like: “In the Britain of 2015 anything that concerns Islam is extremely sensitive. Whatever this judgment says on the subject of spiritual influence is likely to prove controversial and may cause offence, either genuine or feigned,” and “It is important to realise that racism is not the exclusive property of those whose skins are white,” you get the measure of his no-nonsense style.

In a suffix to his verdict the judge boldly concluded that the evidence before him: “disclosed an alarming state of affairs in Tower Hamlets” which he said was “the result of the ruthless ambition of one man.”

Mr. Mawrey threw the book at Rahman and for good reason. Summarised below are some of the themes that cropped up in the no-holds-barred judgement which may be all too familiar to council-watchers across the UK, particularly the Wild West.

Not just Pembrokeshire politics at the Kremlin on Cleddau, but Carmarthenshire – whose brand of local democracy is just as toxic.

All characters appearing in the following excerpts are real. All events described herein actually happened. Any resemblance to other persons occupying town halls across the UK, living or dead, is entirely understandable!

Some of the highlights…

A persistent thread of the case was the funnelling of public funds to electoral wards which strongly identified with Mr. Rahman’s Bangladeshi community.

In what the judge referred to as “the impropriety of distributing largesse to those who had not asked for it,” it became apparent that under Mr. Rahman’s mayoralty: “large grants were made to organisations who were totally ineligible” and even to those “that had not applied for them.”

Rahman had a “buccaneering approach to grantmaking” and a “total disregard of the established rules and procedures” as public cash was “targeted at the wards where support for Mr Rahman and his candidates was strongest,” whilst “wards where their chances of success were slim lost out.”

These “corrupt” grant awards made for his own “personal electoral benefit” along with “payments to the media” in exchange for favourable treatment and rose-tinted coverage – including self-indulgent “personal political broadcasts” – led to a conclusion that Rahman was guilty of bribery.

It was also established that “public money was misused to pay a publicist” for him.

Our man Lutfur clearly attracts the wrong sort of publicity!

On the recurrent topic of the large amount of influence disgraced ex-mayor Rahman wielded over his council, the judge had to say:

“This power is consolidated by the fact that his cabinet has been chosen from his close cronies, some of whom, it must sadly be said, have little to recommend them beyond blind loyalty to their leader.”

Sound familiar?

On Mr. Rahman’s links to Alibor Choudhury – his Mr. Fix-It, campaign manager and one of his cherry-picked cabinet members:

“In describing Mr Choudhury as Mr Rahman’s right-hand man, perhaps the slang term ‘hatchet-man’ would be more appropriate.

The modus operandi of the two men would be that Mr Rahman would retain a statesmanlike posture, making sure that he always said the right thing – particularly in castigating electoral malpractice – while what might be called ‘the dirty work’ was done by Mr Choudhury.”

The very thought of it!

The judge cuts straight to the issue of self-service and patronage which is, unfortunately, rife in local government – a political arena where little regard is paid to ability and where political affiliations are often fickle, coming a distant second to personal ends:

“As an independent Mayor, Mr Rahman originally stood alone. He had no party and he faced a Council with a large majority from the party that had rejected him.

Over the months following his election, however, a number of Councillors decided that their personal loyalty to Mr Rahman outweighed their loyalty to the party under whose banner they had been elected and, one by one, they declared themselves to be ‘independent’.

In reality they had formed a loose and unofficial political party whose common theme was support for Mr Rahman as Mayor. They were not exactly unrewarded for their defection.

Like all mayors, Mr Rahman had a cabinet whose membership was entirely in his gift. By the end of his Mayoralty the cabinet consisted of his close associates.”

Say no more!

The ‘independent’ party Rahman set up, Tower Hamlets First, worked a charm, and proved very attractive to a number of his cronies from the Bangladeshi community. Some who, like he, had a long association with the Labour party and had been elected as councillors under its banner.

The temptation of Rahman’s gravy train led to much floor-crossing. Defectors to the THF had what the judge called “a varied political history,” but were largely of Labour stock.

Especially interesting for Pembrokeshire readers, the judge, having looked at THF candidates’ election literature in the 2014 election, was unable to identify any common or clear political ideology held by the group, but offers a convincing theory why they all stuck together:

“In general, perhaps somewhat crude, terms, one may trawl through the literature for a long time and still not come up with any statement of policy or ideology for THF beyond that of securing the re-election of Mr Rahman and the election of a body of loyal Councillors who would do his bidding.”

“Even before THF was formally registered, it would have been hard to detect any factor linking the informal grouping of ‘independent’ Councillors beyond personal support for Mr Rahman. Again, it is very difficult to ascertain any coherent policy being followed by Mr Rahman and his supporters…”

“…It was certainly not any discernible ideological programme that bound the ‘independent’ group together. Again it must reluctantly be said that the ‘defections’ were not without an element of personal ambition as a number of the defectors ended up with cabinet posts which would have been unlikely to come their way had the Labour Party remained in power.”

See: Partygate.

As something which will come as no shock to west Wales council-watchers, witnesses including councillors who came before the tribunal in support of the legal challenge explained how any criticisms they or others levelled against Tower Hamlets council’s corrupt, cliquey administration – no matter how legitimate – were spun by those in charge in such a way as to brand their critics as the wrongdoers:

“As time passed and criticism of the Mayor and his administration mounted both within the Borough and in the national media, the Mayor and his close associates withdrew into their bunker. In their minds, they were being targeted because they were Bangladeshi and Muslim: so their critics were necessarily racists and Islamophobes.”

Readers may recall the smears directed at Cllr. Mike Stoddart, including claims that he “didn’t have the truth on his agenda” and had single-handedly turned away developers and driven out external investors when making claims of impropriety in historic property restoration grant schemes administered by Pembrokeshire council. Allegations which have since been reported to the police – by the council – following a remarkable climbdown.

For more on this topic read Old Grumpy’s blog here, here, here, and here!

The case presented by the election petitioners also revealed the interesting sort of tactics deployed by the council’s supposedly impartial legal officers to protect Rahman and his ruling cabal’s interests.

During a heated Tower Hamlets council meeting, the authority’s monitoring officer offered the council chamber what the judge observes was ‘preposterous advice’ which ‘baffled’ the court – by misrepresenting the law to stonewall a determined councillor who was pushing down hard on the establishment.

Remember, this is Tower Hamlets, not Pembrokeshire:

“The Mayor’s refusal to engage with Councillors (other than those of his unofficial party) became more marked. This led to two incidents which were explored in evidence.

The first incident occurred when Mr Rahman was being pressed in the Council Chamber to answer Councillors’ questions but refused to do.

The Council’s Monitoring Officer (in effect, Head of Legal) intervened to say that requiring him to answer questions was in breach of his rights under the European Convention on Human Rights.

The court was asked to accept that the Monitoring Officer had come up with this preposterous advice entirely off her own bat but common sense would seem to indicate that she would never have intervened in this way unless she had been put up to it by Mr Rahman.

Needless to say, her intervention did not convince the Mayor’s critics and the court remained baffled by this interpretation of the ECHR.”

[Original brackets.]

At the end of 2014 an eerily similar attempt was made by Pembrokeshire County Council’s finest to misrepresent both the Human Rights Act and the Contempt of Court Act.

It was part of an ultimately unsuccessful effort to derail Cllr. Mike Stoddart’s bid to allow further scrutiny into the aforementioned irregularities and fraud allegations miring the Pembroke Dock grant schemes administered by the council (see here also.)

Back to London.

On the extreme evasiveness – and untruthfulness – shown by the council’s most senior elected figure when asked straight questions:

“Election courts deal with politicians. As a generalisation, politicians do not welcome questions unless from friendly sources. It is a well-recognized trait of politicians, especially when questioned by the media, to avoid answering the question and to say, instead, what they conceive their ‘message’ to be.

Even when feared interviewers ask the same question repeatedly – the name of Mr Jeremy Paxman comes to mind – it rarely elicits anything but the prepared non-answer. While this may make for entertaining broadcasting, it is sometimes less than helpful in a court of law.

Mr Rahman exemplified this trait to an extreme level. Faced with a straight question, he proved himself almost pathologically incapable of giving a straight answer. He was also extremely discursive so that his non-answer to the question would often ramble on until interrupted by a repetition of the question or, occasionally, an attempt (normally unavailing) for the court to obtain an answer by re-phrasing the question.

Mr Hoar’s [counsel for the challengers] complaint that the length of his cross-examination was due to the failure of Mr Rahman to answer questions was by no means unjustified.

In short, Mr Rahman was evasive and discursive to a very high degree. Sadly, it must also be said that he was not truthful. In one or two crucial matters he was caught out in what were quite blatant lies.”

Well I never!

There’s much, much more within Mr. Mawrey’s ruling which I can’t recommend highly enough to those interested in this sort of thing.

The ensuing Tower Hamlets mayoral by-election ordered by the court ruling saw Rahman’s main opponent at the 2014 election, Labour’s John Biggs, elected.

THF was struck off the Electoral Commission’s register of parties, the group disbanded, and its councillors are now ‘independent.’

Mr. Biggs serves as the borough’s mayor, presiding over his Labour cabinet in the Labour majority council.

To finish, I couldn’t resist sharing this story.

A key part of the case against Rahman was that his fraudulence in securing election as mayor last year involved votes being cast by people whose names or addresses didn’t tally with the electoral register.

The court heard in testimony that there was: “a considerable quantity of addresses where there appeared to be no trace of the voter whose name appeared on the register.”

And it wasn’t just voters whose identities were in doubt.

On the same day that the mayoral election took place, all of the council seats in Tower Hamlets were contested too.

The judge was convinced by evidence before him that some candidates standing in various electoral wards for Mr. Rahman’s breakaway party – successful as well as unsuccessful ones – had given false particulars of where they lived when lodging their nomination papers.

One of these failed would-be councillors standing for Lutfur Rahman’s THF party was a Mr. Syed, who gave his address as 16 Prioress House. By all accounts he didn’t appear to live there.

A further twist in the case revealed candidates’ addresses aren’t the only personal details liable to change, either:

“One of the more curious witnesses in the case was a man who stood as a THF candidate in the May election as Aktaruz Zaman in St Peter’s Ward.

At that time he gave his address as 312 The Highway, to which we shall return. He was unsuccessful. He then decided to stand, again for THF, in the election for the ward of Blackwall and Cubitt Town in the election that had been postponed from May 2014 because of the death of a THF candidate.

Mr Zaman told the court that he decided that being called ‘Zaman’ was not a good idea because it meant he came last on the ballot paper (this being alphabetical) and he also decided that he needed a change of air.

Consequently he changed his name to ‘Mohammed Aktaruzzaman’ and suddenly decamped from The Highway to 16 Prioress House (within days of the May election).

He must presumably have moved in just as Mr Syed was moving out. Sadly for this man, moving his name to the other end of the alphabet did him no good. He was not elected for Blackwall and Cubitt Town either.”

Merry Christmas to you all!

❏ Readers wishing to see the judgment can click here


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57 Comments...

  • Even I have to admit (reluctantly) that this is brilliant.

    East London to West Wales in one easy movement.

    Among the many similarities, this stood out:

    “In general, perhaps somewhat crude, terms, one may trawl through the literature for a long time and still not come up with any statement of policy or ideology for THF beyond that of securing the re-election of Mr Rahman and the election of a body of loyal Councillors who would do his bidding.”

    And it seems the tendency of Labour members to abandon their party loyalties in order to slurp the gravy also transcends any east-west split.

  • Michael Williams

    Well done Jacob.

    It is frightening just how similar PCC is to the likes of certain London boroughs.

    The acid test will be in May 2017, when we will see if the Pembrokeshire electorate wakes up and can see the fraud inflicted upon them since 1996.

    What is so sad is the fact that even now so few seem to understand that the type of individuals who masquerade as “Independents” are anything but.

    There is talent amongst PCC members, but unless they are willing to sign up to the Adams regime they will never be allowed to make meaningful contributions, hence the majority of cabinet members totally fail to master their briefs.

    Just watch the hapless Adams having to continually bail them out when they fail to answer questions that relate to their cabinet portfolio responsibilities for which they are so handsomely rewarded.

    There would be far more taking the cash, and entering clandestine negotiations with the IPPG if it were not for Jacob and Grumpy shining a light into the dark areas of the Mafia-like conspirators that currently are the IPPGs.

    They nearly landed one greedy fish from the North, who thought that he could get away with it, but he was caught out with his fingers still sticky, by the intrepid two.

    Corruption takes many forms.

  • Ken Haylock

    I must admit to a scintilla of sympathy for Lutfur Rahman, on the grounds that he might reasonably say ‘But… but… I carefully studied how local government works in this country, a self-proclaimed beacon of democracy and good governance, and I modelled my administration on the widespread common effective practices I found for gaining and retaining power…practices for which I don’t see anybody else being held to account or dragged into court and thrown out of office!’.

    The cynic in me suggests that were he not of the Bangladeshi persuasion, he also would have been left unmolested to plough his unaccountable furrow for decades to come…

  • Flashbang

    Unless Rahman and his co conspirators are spending the next ten Christmases in jail it’s all been a waste of time and money.

    If they are still walking free then the system (especially in Wales) needs urgent reform as these mongrels will keep doing the same thing over and over.

  • Martin Lewis

    Absolutely brilliant piece Jacob.

    I concur with Flashbang’s opinion though.

    Even the summary you have produced makes terrifying reading.

  • Ken, as you probably picked up, this sort of election challenge requires petitioners to come forward at their own risk, so if there are no petitioners, there’s no challenge!

    In this case it was four of them: Andrew Erlam, Debbie Simone, Azmal Hussain and Angela Moffat, who come from different backgrounds.

    I don’t accept the claim of victimisation peddled by Rahman’s people – that he was targeted because he was Bangladeshi, or of a particular religion or politics.

    I’m sure the evidence can only lead to the same conclusion, Bangladeshi or not, and I see nothing contradicting the petitioners’ common motive to rid their borough of the corruption they’d seen with their own eyes.

    I’ve read many articles and watched and listened to countless reports concerning Rahman’s despotic and corrupt style of leadership so I’m unable to share your sympathy!

    I feel it’s a shame something couldn’t have been done to recall Rahman during his 2010-2014 mayoral term.

    Incidentally, it’s also worth pointing out that several of Rahman’s THF councillors were elected on the same 2014 election date.

    The ruling also says at the end:

    As the court is required to consider the matter under s 145(3) of the 1983 Act, the court finds that corrupt practices extensively prevailed at the election both of the Mayor and of the Councillors for the twenty wards of Tower Hamlets held on 22 May 2014.

    The timeframe to bring a challenge had passed by then, but, had other councillors’ elections been petitioned at the same time, it’s possible that in addition to Rahman’s hatchet man, even more of his clan could have been fingered.

  • Goldingsboy

    Jacob, I too must record my admiration for your magnificent, razor-sharp piece of research.

    The first of your quotes from Mawrey’s judgement was that council expenditure was “targeted at the wards where support for Mr Rahman and his candidates was strongest”. Here in Pembrokeshire, and I imagine you had it in mind when selecting it, they even made a “road video” boasting of just such a practice.

    But, like others, I have to conclude that the justifiable comparisons with Tower Hamlets and its corrupt leadership, that the likelihood that Pembrokeshire’s governing clique will be similarly held to account, is very, very, remote.

    In your reply to Ken Haylock, you rightfully discount the claims of “Rahman’s people – that he was targeted because he was Bangladeshi, or of a particular religion or politics.”

    Corruption in Tower Hamlets had demonstrably existed for years. It was only its ever-increasing naked visibility, coupled with the concerns of a principled few, that so alarmed the “authorities”, causing them to act when they did.

    We, in the UK, think that standards in public life are a shining beacon for the rest of the world to follow. But, are we not just as every bit a banana republic as those developing nations – just better at applying the camouflage?

    Let me give just one example: our local MP is discovered to have immorally gained thousands of pounds in parliamentary expenses through “flipping” the registration of his main residence. Having been found out, he agrees to reimburse the public purse and, in just a short period of time is elevated to the post of Secretary of State for Wales.

    Why, I ask myself, did that illogical, cynical, political appointment not cause widespread outrage?

    May I suggest that when making comparisons with the corruption in Pembrokeshire, not only do we look at Tower Hamlets, but the Palace of Westminster, the Mother of all…

  • Keanjo

    Rahman merely took advantage of the opportunities which the Mayor, Cabinet system offers to allow a determined cabal to take over and misuse power.

    The system needs fundamental change or Local Government in the UK is finished.

  • Blodwen

    Brilliant piece Jacob. It all holds absolutely true for Carmarthenshire as well. When will WAO actually DO something, rather than just writing reports?

  • Goldingsboy, and a rather fine contribution of your own, if I may say, sir!

    It always struck me how easily Crabb managed to get away with flipping his home.

    I’m convinced that much more should have been made out of that one.

    Whichever way you look at it, whether this practice was ‘the norm’ or not (and I don’t agree that it was, by the way) it was a determined attempt by a politician to profit from taxpayers using, at best, questionable ethics.

    And, what memory you have. The tarmac video! Any opportunity to share it here for all to see. It would be rude not to!

    Keanjo, no doubt Rahman took advantage of the system, but he didn’t ‘merely’ do so. In order to get himself into the position to do that, he trampled over the law.

    Blodwen, I fear that your concerns are not alone and reflect what I see as the back-patting culture and preference to smooth things out rather than confront in an adversarial manner.

    I refer to an issue which will come up in the new year. This relates to the council’s budget approval process. I’m hopeful that the WAO will come to a definitive view that councillors were misled by a misrepresentation of the law.

    But I wouldn’t bet on it! Nothing is ever black and white with these people.

  • Rosieone

    Cracking piece Jacob, without doubt one of the best things I’ve read all year!

    My particular favourite:

    “This power is consolidated by the fact that his cabinet has been chosen from his close cronies, some of whom, it must sadly be said, have little to recommend them beyond blind loyalty to their leader.”

    Nail…head…wallop…

  • Jacob, thanks for the video which is a masterpiece of unintended comedy.

    My researches into the council’s accounts revealed that some £300,000 was expended on tarmac in Cllr George’s ward in the year leading up to the 2012 local elections.

    According to the Rev. George this was due to “positive politics” bringing “positive results” i.e his efforts, for which he deserved to be duly rewarded at the ballot box.

    However, when I raised this issue at a cabinet meeting, where I was trying to procure extra funding for car parking on council estates, I was told by Jamie Adams that these acres of black stuff in the Maenchlochog area were down to “routine maintenance”.

    Clearly, at least one of them was being economical with the truth.

  • Rosieone

    I applaud your decision to suspend the “Golden DonQui” awards for this year, but, can’t help feeling a little sorry for Cllr. Lee.

    What with her despicable behaviour and total disregard for her constituents, I think you may have robbed her of the only landslide victory she’s ever likely to see again…

  • Observer

    There was an interesting article on South Africa’s beleaguered President, Jacob Zuma, in last week’s Sunday Times in which it was said that his Cabinet was chosen for their loyalty rather than their ability.

    Unfortunately, all systems where the Leader relies on yes-men (and women) to keep them in power eventually come to grief because, as is the case in Pembrokeshire, you end up with people in charge who would be out of their depth in a car park puddle.

  • Goldingsboy

    Jacob, if I could just add, those who are familiar with the most notorious local government corruption scandal will know that its most infamous elected official, T. Dan Smith, began his plunge into the sordid world of the brown envelope when he became leader of Newcastle City Council in 1959.

    His Wikipedia entry tellingly informs us that he “instituted a personality-based leadership, creating an ‘inner Cabinet’ of his own supporters”.

    Is it too far-fetched, I wonder, to consider whether some of his local-governance ideas found their way into the Pembrokeshire model?

  • Concerned

    I think Rahman would be offended if he was ever to find out his shenanigans were compared, however loosely, to the goings on down here.

    Adams is not in the same class!

    Brilliant piece of research, Jacob.

  • John Hudson

    Excellent work Jacob. But what can be done?

    Looking forward to the next WAO report on the budget approval process.

  • Clive Davies

    Fascinating stuff but is it transferable? Ultimately Rahman is an outsider, in academic colonialist jargon, an ‘other.’ He is on the margins, not legitimated in mainstream society. He’s clearly an arsehole as well, but that’s another matter.

    Down here perpetrators of strikingly similar acts are legitimated in society, part of the host and far less likely to be fingered. It’s reflected in the funny handshake but goes deeper than that into the fabric of legitimation and dominant values.

    That’s why Lewis got hardly a reprimand and why Adams and his fellow conspirators can go on sniggering.

    If there are vacancies at Prioress House perhaps we could have a whip round and put down the deposit for the Farmer and his mates to move in there.

    It would be a better use of my Christmas box than spending it in the pub!!!

  • Timetraveller

    Jamie would have to sell County Hall to his mates for a song to top Mr Rahman – still, shouldn’t give them ideas!

    I previously asked why Mike (or Jacob) would be refused membership of the IPPG, not whether they wanted to or liked them. Even though not registered as a political party, they operate as one and therefore are part of what should be an open political process.

    In Tower Hamlets such subterfuge created what was effectively a Bangladeshi/Islamic party and hence as racist as, say, the EDL if they rejected an applicant over the colour of their skin.

    The IPPG ostensibly are a grouping of independents, if they have restrictions on which independents then they could be guilty of a few “isms”.

    As 10% of the population are supposedly gay, they should have 3 gay members. If an applicant was non-white, what would be the implications of a refusal?

    Unfortunately we don’t have anyone who would wade in as heavily (literally) as Eric Pickles in Wales. Perhaps we should, as the Welsh Labour party is keen to distance itself from the current national party by presenting its competence in government. In this case they have a pseudo Conservative council to book.

  • The tarmacadam video is a classic of its kind. This is the first time I have seen it. I am confident that the point I am about to raise has been mentioned, but just in case!

    Unless the car is a left hand drive, then doesn’t the imaginative filming of the road scenes contravene the Road Traffic Act – due care and attention issues?? The footage looks hand-held?

    The rest of the article is brilliant, and as well as being a great piece of political observation, it provides further evidence that will push forward our understanding of cosmology and space-time. There ARE parallel universes.

  • Tony Brinsden

    Excellent research done there Jacob, well done. It’s surprising how many similarities have been thrown up!!

  • The Rock

    Well done Jacob. I think Adrian James’s parallel universe theory must be correct. Maybe someone can explain how Tarmac George (former cabinet spokesperson for education) found the time to get permission to use the children’s photos in his election video without putting schools to the expense of obtaining the permission for on his behalf.

    The Information Commissioner gives advice that strongly suggests he would have had to obtain prior permission from the school governors and the children/parents in order to use the material in this particular context.

    Personally I cannot see the school governors giving permission on ethical grounds, let alone ALL the parents. I think, therefore, I must be on a different planet.

  • Timetraveller

    If I’m not mistaken, Rahman and Tower Hamlets was political gerrymandering with a racist component, overriding the administration of the borough, enabled in part by the new office of mayor giving him a mandate which he used to exploit otherwise grey areas.

    Pembs is less serious, with the administration possibly colluding with a political group to achieve a political objective, lower taxes, by hook or by crook.

    Similarities are that the chief organ grinder in both authorities were lawyers (Pembs recently disposing of theirs.) Let’s just say versed in how far you can bend a rule or law. The other similarity is the exclusiveness of membership of the ruling party or group – one was primarily Bangladeshi, the other depends on circumstances.

    However, whilst Tower Hamlets became so corrupted as to need external supervision, Pembs can still do its own dirty laundry.

    It would be up to the administration to achieve the savings they do in Pembs as the elected body can only really provide general guidance. The failings are in part down to councillors as initially the Ministerial Board considered councillor incompetence the main reason for the problems they were sent in to investigate.

    With the departure of the chief organ grinder, there are questions of competence in the cabinet (there probably always was, but they had guidance.) That leaves the administration still making political decisions, possibly above and beyond their remit.

    Malcom Calver has previously mentioned asking the CEO for a list of statutory liabilities on the authority. He will wait a long time for this, as the art of low council taxes is to avoid these where possible, especially in the area of social services. (The Malavon care home case being a prime example.) There would be more clarity if the Green Books were used a lot more by councillors, rather than being told they have to make savings of £x million here or £x million there.

    Social services are the main losers in having low council taxes, though the authority is reluctant to submit their spending on each Green Book assessment, they mix social and education spending up to hide this. Yes Pembs may have an influx of older people, but the council’s income is set according to need to accommodate this (as laid out in the Green Book).

    Diverting external funding, such as a grant to rejuvenate a retail area, is another way tedious social services obligations can be reduced – using the money to facilitate a slum landlord to provide needed social housing. I know some councillors think this was a worthy aim and hence have opposed any investigation into such matters.

    Likewise we have a police service who know full well what went on and do not which to delve into such murky political waters. The fact remains that applications for, and payment of, considerable sums of public money were effectively falsified to achieve such a diversion of funds.

    If those councillors lack ethics in this area, as it’s “for Pembrokeshire”, then they shouldn’t have been too surprised to find their erstwhile guide and mentor helping himself to a Porsche on the council, or stuffing his pension pot to bursting, presumably because he will need it if he stays in the county.

    All this is aided by a fragmented opposition. I can appreciate some councillors were frustrated and so confused the political landscape with another party (PA), but that is precisely why the IPPG is the “rainbow” coalition.

    As the largest opposition party, Labour should be leading here and looking into the consequences of low social services spending, which should be their forte. Perhaps a new year resolution to Labour, less infighting and more reaching out to other parties and independents, including IPPG members.

  • Goldingsboy

    I think, Timetraveller that, other than the Mayor’s ruthless use of the race card in Tower Hamlets, you fail to appreciate just how many similarities there are with our own council chamber.

    The most glaring example is that Pembrokeshire’s ruling cabinet is cobbled together by one individual, not on the basis of competence and aptitude, but in the brazen handout of public funds, in the shape of Special Responsibility Allowances.

    Its success, as a strategy, is made manifest by the number of councillors who jettison the very manifesto that elected them, sometimes within days of driving into their designated space in the Kremlin car park.

    Bernard Shaw sums up the situation in Pembrokeshire nicely: “Power does not corrupt men; fools, however, if they get into a position of power, corrupt power.”

    Oh, and Mike, it would surely be more accurate, especially at this time of year, to describe the video as a superb example of pure pantomime – and isn’t Cllr. Huw George magnificent in the role of the Dame?

  • Timetraveller

    Goldingsboy, the cabinet may have been cobbled together by an individual (probably by one not even on it) however this cabinet has been there since 1996 and has had a number of leaders. The incumbent has enough trouble changing light bulbs to be too creative about cobbling, he simply inherited the position.

    Yes people are bought, and outrageously so, though it is not that uncommon in local authorities. The powers that be are slowly reigning in such malpractice by cutting the number and amounts for SRAs.

    Change from within is possible though, either within the IPPG or the opposition getting its act together, after all secure a majority and the keys to the treasure chest are yours.

    If unaffiliated independents applied to join the IPPG, they are not breaking any compact with the electorate, is it not a grouping of independents?

    If then pressed, very publicly, as to the reasons for any refusal, we could get some idea of what they actually stand for. Silence can simply be interpreted that it is some form of freemasonry, so practice those handshakes Jacob!

  • The Rock makes a good point about the photos of children in the black stuff video.

    I was particularly interested in the one involving Lamphey School which was at the time attended by one of my grandchildren. This was taken in connection with Huw George’s position as cabinet member for education.

    The WLGA did issue guidance on this subject:

    “As with your own leaflets or newsletters always ask permission before taking a picture that you intend to use. NEVER take photos of children without the express permission of their parents based on an understanding of what you intend to use the picture for. Your council will have a policy on taking pictures of children, take advice on this before taking or using pictures.”

    Clearly the picture was taken to publicise the school’s activities and while parents might have given their blanket permission for the taking of photos for that purpose, their “understanding” of the pictures intended use wouldn’t stretch to its appearance on the cabinet member’s election video.

    I did take this matter up with the, then, Monitoring Officer, but, not for the first time, all I got in reply was an outpouring of self-serving twaddle.

  • Goldingsboy

    Wow, that really is amazing Timetraveller: that Our Dear Leader has had no hand in handing out any of the those lucrative boarding passes for the gravy train since the line’s construction in 1996.

    That will come as quite a revelaton to most Kremlin watchers.

  • Flashbang

    Yet more scandal emanating from PCC with the allegation of a rigged school headteacher appointment. Can someone be jailed for this please? It’s time for people to be held to account.

  • John Hudson

    When I voted for my “independent” candidate at the last election, I did not vote for him to join the Independent Political Group, no more than I voted for him to join the Conservative Political Group, which is what happened.

    I rather fear this was done out of disgust of the IPG because as Jacob revealed, the IPG had been electioneering, with our money on his opponent candidate’s behalf.

    I think OG revealed, that on the night of the election, senior former IPG councillors were already clubbing together to form a new Independent Political Group that nobody voted for and had no policies, perhaps other than sharing out the SRAs. (Does the formation of an IPG help the CEO direct a cabinet, chosen by the Leader, to direct the council’s policy in a political policy vacuum?)

    I do wonder how many councillors were elected on the basis of a majority vote of their electorate, rather than the most votes of all candidates standing. Were the majority of votes a waste of time?

  • Timetraveller

    Goldingsboy, that’s not what I said. He does indeed hand out the boarding passes, but he only inherited the gravy train.

    Whether or not he was capable of cobbling together or creating the cabinet setup you have to go back to the establishment of the authority.

    The cabinet has operated this way from early on and dare I suggest sharper minds than those of the current cabinet were behind it.

  • Observer

    Mr Hudson, you must be talking about Cllr David Bryan because he is the only member who has made the journey from IPG to Tory – via a short stay as an unaffiliated.

    It is true that this website provided the evidence that Cllrs David Wildman and Rob Lewis (both senior members of the IPG, of which Cllr Bryan was a loyal servant) had been involved in the unlawful use of council computers to produce election material for his opponent.

    However following the 2012 election Cllr Adams refused to provide him with a scrutiny committee chair (SRA £9k per year) so you shouldn’t rule out the possibility that was also a factor in his decision to abandon the IPG.

  • Goldingsboy

    Ok Timetraveller, but the way you worded your piece suggested to me that you have much sympathy with “the incumbent [who having] simply inherited the position” was duty-bound to continue with the structure of the cabinet as selected by his predecessors.

    You then seek to justify this squalid methodology of fuelling the gravy train by dismissing it as “not that uncommon in local authorities”.

    And what, precisely, is an “unaffiliated independent”? How would such a beast fit into the various dictionary definitions of “independent”: unwilling to be under obligation, free from outside control, not subject to another’s authority or jurisdiction, free from the influence, guidance, or control of another?

  • Timetraveller

    Goldingsboy, the setup in Pembs involves a cabinet giving the management a free hand to achieve a low council tax. The structures that should be constraining this system have been relaxed over the years to let it happen. After all, we wouldn’t want something like the Audit Committee getting too inquisitive (having Jacob on it is bad enough!).

    Jamie and his cabinet have therefore simply inherited a system that more or less requires him to not ask too many questions. It’s not that I have sympathy with him, quite the reverse, but that I doubt very much if Jamie had the capacity to devise it himself.

    Any system that allows renumeration like a local council is bound to be flawed in how such rewards are handed out. Virtually any organisation will end up with “yes men” (and women) in such circumstances. It is simply a reality that gravy trains to some extent or another roll down many other tracks than Pembs.

    Politics, or the Art of the Possible, is not a clear ethical business, in fact we rarely get ethical politicians. This is because compromises have to be made to get things done and they get too used to compromising. We simply have to trust the individual we vote for.

    Locking politicians into being “independent” or staying with the party they were elected for has some merit, but can have the negative effect of empowering party leaderships even more than at present. If anyone wants Jamie out, a few people, probably Jacob and Mike included, will have to cross floors to achieve a grouping of over 30 members.

    Forcing members to stay in parties and groups (including the IPPG) may have the effect of making Jamie “President for Life”, or at least the next election.

    Personally I think electoral law should require any grouping to involve only registered parties with clear constitutions and membership policies in place before an election.

    Ideally the IPPG should be open to all independents so it at least conformed to something shown on the ballot paper.

    This council effectively “saves” £10-£12 million p/a by not providing services expected of it by the Welsh government. If this was efficiency, then every council chief in Wales would be rushing to Haverfordwest to learn how.

    You simply get less in Pembs, especially in social services. This is not the result of an open political debate, as for example currently taking place over schools, but covert practices carried out by officials.

    Labour are negligent as an opposition in not trying to shed light into these dark recesses – if care homes run at a loss it simply has to affect the quality of care, but this authority’s officers are primarily concerned with cost alone.

  • Martin Lewis

    I think Timetraveller is missing an important point here and this is that locking people into the party/independent status that they were elected on would prevent the creation of the IPPG in the first place.

  • Malcolm Calver

    I am sorry Timetraveller but Pembrokeshire County Council might as you say have a “low council tax” compared to other authorities but I would suggest that for the people of Pembrokeshire that actually pay the charge it is not low enough.

    What is the point of central government trying to reduce the cost of public spending when it is rumoured you have county councillors this year going to increase the charge by five per cent for less services.

    Perhaps if we did not have councillors working full time elsewhere as well as being county councillors, perhaps there would be more scrutiny as to where our money is actually going.

  • Goldingsboy

    Martin, you are bang on target. Timetraveller referred, in an earlier comment, to the IPPG as a “grouping of independents” meaning, incontestably, that we have an oxymoronic cabinet.

    Few would find much fault with that description.

  • Martin Lewis

    Oxymoronic….add a letter T and you’ve got an anagram of “Toxic Moron”, ’nuff said!

  • Observer

    I’ve heard that a certain fortified wolf from the IPPG pack is awash with Gs and Ts!

    All this alphabet soup and it isn’t even lunchtime yet. Must try to moderate myself because too many jokes about letters stun my senses!

  • Malcolm, you are quite right that council tax payers are being asked to pay more for less, but that is not the whole story.

    I am sure you must remember the Director of Finance’s talk on “gearing” when you were a member of the council.

    Put simply, the council’s income is divided roughly 80%-20% between central government rate support grant (RSG) and council tax.

    So a percentage cut in government grant requires a four-times larger percentage increase in council tax to make up the shortfall.

    For example:

    Year 1: total income £100 million made up of £80 million RSG and £20 million Council Tax.

    Year 2: RSG cut to £78 million (2.5% decrease) – Council Tax increase required to make up the shortfall £2 million (10%increase).

    Of course, that doesn’t account for the increases in charges which constitute a stealth tax.

    John Hudson knows more about this last subject than I do so perhaps he will enlighten us on how it works.

  • Timetraveller

    I agree that locking politicians into their elected status has much merit. The IPPG would have had to register beforehand and its candidates could not be independents, so it probably wouldn’t exist.

    In Pembrokeshire’s case that would mean a minority administration (lots of independents who can’t act together). This might become very unmanageable.

    Look at Labour in Westminster, the left wing lurch may only be checked by defections, Labour went there in the 70s. I’m afraid it’s all part of the cut and thrust of politics.

    The Westminster government has just enabled councils to raise an extra 2% for elderly care, clearly a case of passing the buck. Many of us, myself included, struggle with council tax bills, but like it or not we’ve been landed the burden.

    Pembs has resorted to a multitude of tricks to dodge this one in the past, it’s inevitable that there will be increases.

  • Mephisto

    Nice try Martin, but no cigar.

    No Y in Toxic Moron.

  • John Hudson

    The figures of my post to this website dated 23 December can be updated now that the draft budget for 2016/17 is available:-

    The council incurs GROSS EXPENDITURE on providing our services:

    Approved Original budget 2015/6 = £312,722m
    Revised estimated expenditure 2015/6 = £319,018m (+£6.296m = +2%)
    Proposed budget for 2016/7 = £313,584m (-£5.4m, -1.7% on the revised estimated costs for the current year, but +£0.8m on 2015/16 approved budget).

    Incidentally, the 2016/7 estimate includes for a budget saving/reduction of £2.5m offset by contribution of £2.2m to something called “invest to save”.

    You might wonder what all the fuss is about if the council can overspend its approved gross budget by some £7m, and what the cabinet and O&S committees are doing.

    Officers are only allowed, under financial regulations, to spend within their council approved departmental estimates, so how are they permitted to incur this unauthorised expenditure? (See below under net expenditure).

    Don’t worry, financial control is not exercised at this level so there aren’t any explanations given or required.

    Some of this expenditure is met by DIRECT INCOME from charges/grants for services.

    Approved income budget 2015/16 = -£128,837m
    Revised estimated income = -£133,372m (+£4.5m = 3.5%) (Actual income in 2014/5 was £133,372m)
    Approved income budget 2016/7 = -£128,837m the same as for 2015/6

    As part of its budget reductions, the council has been increasing its charges to us for the services we use and so thereby increasing its income. But if we are getting £133m income this year, why are we planning to get £5m less income next year?

    Surely the council should be expecting more from us? This extra income could provide a convenient hidden buffer and eliminate the need for strict departmental financial control.

    Again the are no explanations given or sought. This is because the council, and it would appear our councillors are content to manage and exercise financial control at the net expenditure level.

    NET EXPENDITURE on providing services: (Gross expenditure less the direct income)

    Approved budget 2015/6 = £183,885m
    Revised estimate for 2015/6 = £185,646m (+£1.7m = 1%)
    Proposed budget for 2016/7 = £186,900m (£1.2m over the net revised estimate for the current year).

    So all will come out in the wash. The “control” or base has been moved from the original 2015/16 council approved net budget, £184m to the revised net estimate of £185m, this is the figure that will be used to explain any variation at the end of the financial year when the books are closed.

    Inevitably, the final net figure will be close to the revised estimate of £185m, thereby avoiding any nasty need for inconvenient explanation or accountability to a disinterested audience of councillors.

    I have been informed that by approving the revised estimate for the current year, a formal budget requirement, councillors have (unwittingly?) approved the additional expenditure already incurred by officers.

    Councillors have been content to allow officers to “get on with it” for years and have not sought to interfere or ask questions in how money is spent on the providing our services.

    To this net expenditure for services figure, net expenditure on levies, capital financing* costs and interest and investment income must be added, to arrive at the council’s net budget requirement of:

    Approved budget 2015/6 = £202,787m
    Revised estimate 2015/6 = £202,753m
    Approved budget 2016/7 = £202,787m

    For 2015/6 despite incurring an additional £6m of gross expenditure on providing services which will be met by increased income from charges/grants, (+£4.5m) the increase in net expenditure incurred in providing our services is increased by £1.7m. This is met by a saving in *capital financing costs of £1.7m.

    The net budget requirement is the legal level at which the council has to account and the level at which officers prefer to focus attention, rather than what happens to our services levels, and it seem councillors are more than content not to ask questions or get even mildly involved.

    I have had enough for the moment, as have you, if you have got this far. The next stage is to consider how the council’s budget requirement is met by “Rate Support Grant”, non domestic rate contribution and of course council tax.

    Reserves are also another matter on which councillors expend little effort, and about which they are told not much. Some £60m apparently just sitting there.

    Any questions? You can bet cabinet won’t have any. On past performance, O&S committees will be numbed and dumbed by the experience.

  • Malcolm Calver

    I would suggest Mike that all those that pay community charge are interested in, is the bottom line i.e what they have to pay or more importantly what extra they have to pay this coming year.

    It is all very well County Hall complaining about the loss of income from central government but that is no reason for the local county council to raise community charge by five per cent.

    I have for a long while suggested that councillors should be fully informed in detail what the council spends on non statutory expenditure and end the financing of the projects.

    Included in the community charge is the levy for the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority and town and community councils. I would question the need for these organisations and not just in a time of austerity.

    It would also be very interesting to be informed how many households in Pembrokeshire are actually paying the community charge.

  • John Hudson

    Malcolm, from figures available on the Stats Wales web site, I understand from figures provided by PCC, the headline figures are:-

    All chargeable dwellings
    2014/5 = 57,967
    2015/6 = 58,590

    Dwellings with no discount
    2014/5 = 37,271
    2015/6 = 37,174

  • Timetraveller

    Mike, I find it interesting that the portion of council tax raised in Pembs is about 20% of the overall SSA.

    In calculating Pembrokeshire’s (and every other authority in Wales) the government allocates a different figure. For 2015/6 for an SSA of £218.2m, the government directly provide £124.4m with another £35.7m coming from non domestic rates. This leaves £57m to be raised in council tax.

    Based on a Band D, the government expects the standard rate to be £1,376.60 for this year. My calculations are that this component would be 25%.

    Do you know at what point official policy to budget below 25% was approved in council? Somehow this was probably not a decision made there. This data can be obtained as a pdf download here.

    This document provides details of needs and awards county by county. It probably even allows for how many martians live in Pembrokeshire and whether they need flying saucer landing pods etc.

    Malcolm, within this document, funding for such things as the police, fire brigade, national park etc are allocated, the council more or less pass it on (no 9% handling fees!) Presumably the government would just deduct the money at source if PCC declined to hand it over.

    About half is allocated to education, including things like the 21st Century Schools project, fiddle with that if they dare, ESTYN saw fit in their D- report a few years ago to suggest that a bit of light skimping on that budget was a contribution to the failings.

    The residue is getting smaller, of which social services probably gobbles up two thirds of the remainder, or supposed to if the authority was delivering theses services as the government intended.

    To get the share Mike refers to, we have to skim £10-£12m from this residue. As roads and other services in the county are about on a par with other authorities, only social services can be bearing the cost.

    On merging back into Dyfed, assuming the new authority delivers services as Ceredigion and Carmarthen do at present, there is going to have to be a massive rise in council tax in Pembrokeshire – like 25%. That is apart from trying to deal with the present problems.

  • John Hudson

    Current accounting regs provide for accounting by “special areas”. In effect this means if we are co-joined into one big county, some costs could be accounted for and charged as a “county” precept equally over the three areas.

    But there could also be three special area accounts, charged individually over the three areas as appropriate, in addition to the overall “county” charge.

    By amalgamating certain common “central” services over all three counties, possible savings could accrue and be shared.

    Timetraveller is right to point out the benefits we have had by having “the lowest council tax in Wales”. This council has consistently budgeted to spend less than the sum produced by rather crude standard spending assessment of need calculations and on which central funding contributions were based.

    As the central funding element is reduced, it stands to reason that we (the council) will have to contribute more to stand still, and that our (the council’s) room to make reductions is severely limited.

    Most of the council’s budget reductions so far have been achieved by putting up our charges for services we use. This is great if you do not have to use them. It would be interesting to see how much the council’s income has due to increase in charges to “customer”.

    Can I thank Cleddau Bridge toll payers for continuing to contribute the toll profits of £1.9m in 2015/6 and 2016/7 towards county-wide highways and transport services? This cost would otherwise have to be met from council tax.

    I am sure they appreciate that this “profit” from tolls reduces their council tax and the council tax of households that do not use the bridge.

    The council still has to consider whether “the bridge” has made an accumulated “profit” of £9m or £17m raised as “a matter of emphasis” by the council’s external auditor, the Wales Audit Office.

  • Malcolm Calver

    John, thanks for relaying the figures for households in Pembrokesire paying community charge.

    The figures that you have supplied reveal that only two thirds of properties in Pembrokeshire actually pay the full community charge with the rest having a discount, thus only two thirds of householders will be paying the full five per cent increase proposed by Pembrokeshire County Council.

    I presume the discount is for single person occupancy or are there other discounts available?

    If the figures you quote are just for single person occupancy are figures available for those claiming because they having an inability to pay for some reason and if so who pays PCC on their behalf?

    I also note that there are 623 extra properties paying community charge, bringing in a large amount to the council coffers.

  • Timetraveller

    John, I would disagree that the SSA is crude, the figures are derived from numerous indicators of need and continuously reviewed.

    Obviously if some councils can underspend, then they can charge lower taxes and balance the books. Nor are the SSAs mandatory on the council, though they reflect the expectations and obligations placed on authorities by the WG and UK governments.

    PCC has raised additional revenues by charging for anything it possibly can. It has also been quite ruthless cutting spending in some areas of social services, particularly the elderly.

    The Mavalon care homes case is a good illustration, as they would rather spend £500k on legal eagles defending a hopeless case than use that money to provide the adequate care they are supposed to.

    The old can be a soft touch, easily kept in the dark about what they are entitled to, easily neglected and let’s just say no longer a burden when they have passed on.

    Why did the former CEO personally lead negotiations for care home contracts before he “retired”? Dare I suggest a sharp lawyer to write sharp contracts were costs is the overriding consideration.

    I would like to hear that such a culture is behind them, but I fear not.

  • John Hudson

    Malcolm, even those benefiting from the discounts will be facing a 5% rise in their discounted council tax. The calculations are quite involved.

    It starts from the number of chargeable dwellings in each valuation band as certified by the valuation office. For 2015/6 the total number was 58,590 of which 19,270 (33%) were mostly dwellings with one resident which qualify for the 25% discount.

    No doubt this attempts to reflect the lower usage of council services. A further 1,606 (3%) qualified for the 50% discount in respect of other occupiers not counted as being resident. 1,846 (3%) dwellings were regarded as statutorily exempt from paying council tax. 35,868 (61%) dwellings were left as wholly chargeable dwellings.

    The council then has to calculate its tax base expressed in total ninths, over all council tax bands, where those in Band A (properties valued at up to £44,000) will pay 6 ninths, and properties in Band I (valued at £424,001 and above) will pay 21 ninths. Band D properties, paying 9 ninths, are valued at £91,001 to £123,000.

    All the ninths are added up and the council then estimates for variables such as non collection and dwellings coming into and going out of charge to arrive at its tax base. For 2015/16 this tax base was assessed as 53,358.

    For next year 2016/17 it is 53,79 which, when applied to the council’s net budget requirement to be met by council taxes of £45,250,000, results in the Band D (9 ninths) equivalent of £841.10.

    So Band A properties will pay 6 ninths = £560.73, and a Band I, paying 21 ninths, will pay £1,962.57.

    Cabinet approves the council’s tax base each year on the basis of a one page report, which does not explain the variables taken into account in the calculation. It is a matter of record that the council has always accrued more council tax income receipts than it estimated for.

    In 2014/15 extra council tax income of £1.5m accrued, which with the then council tax Band D equivalent of £766.55, equates to 1,957 new properties. Perhaps it is about time these council tax estimates were looked at more closely.

    As a matter of pre determined policy, this surplus in recent years has been applied to the priority 21st Century Schools reserve. When asked how, with a commendable collection rate of some 98%, this happens, it is attributed to more properties coming in to charge during the year. Was there an incentive to underestimate council tax income?

    In answer to your other question Malcolm, the council operates a council tax reduction scheme, for which some £7.450m is included in the 2016/17 budget. I assume that this represents an amount of agreed reductions in respect of amounts that hard pressed council tax payers on low incomes cannot pay. The council does not get reimbursed for this.

    This is shared out over those of us that can. There is no other way this difficulty can be recognised. Does any one know any more?

  • John Hudson

    Timetraveller, you are probably aware that all those elderly that qualify for non-residential home care, can get up to £60 per week care before they have to contribute towards the cost.

    This is a Welsh Government scheme but I can’t find out how it is paid for, is it by direct grant reimbursement or through the RSG calculations? Any ideas please?

    It would be nice to know how much is involved, and how it is paid for. I have asked around but no one seems to know. I have not found it in the council’s direct grants so I assume it is assessed as part of the SSA and paid for via the unhypothecated RSG settlement.

    If people go in to full time residential care the £60 does not apply, and their contribution is means tested. They only pay for social (hotel)care as the NHS pays for any health (nursing) element.

    This incentive of a £60 “discount” on some qualifying “home based” care costs is why people may elect to stay independently living in their own homes. Always seems a misnomer to me as you are very dependent upon carers etc coming into your home to look after you.

  • Timetraveller

    Annexe A on page 102 of the Green Book 2015/6 (printed page number 88) shows that the council has 11,331 cases in this category, with 7,808 having dependent children and a council tax reduction scheme expenditure of £7,306,388.

    I assume that this expenditure is factored into the assessments. As you can’t get blood out of a stone in some cases (this stone has been bled!) it is a factor for all councils.

    The Green Book preface contains a preface and I take the reference 3 on page 9 (printed introduction page vii) titled ‘Funding of an SSA’ to mean variations between authorities in the numbers and bands of houses are factored into the revenue settlement.

  • Malcolm Calver

    John, thanks for information. I understand that those receiving a 5% discount will be charged the percentage increase, but you have raised further issues in regard to non-payment of the full charge (discounts).

    Could you explain how properties qualify for the 50% discount? You state that it is because the occupiers are not counted as being resident or they are statutorily exempt from paying council tax.

    If council tax is based on two person residency, surely as this tax is increasing dramatically, the one person discount should be 50%?

  • John Hudson

    Malcolm, details of the qualifying discounts are given out with the annual rate demand notice sent to each household. (I think the information is available on the council’s website).

    I have had experience of the discount – 12 persons who are severely mentally impaired – with another council.

    Apparently under national regulation, this covers people with dementia. So in order to qualify, you have to put yourself, or relative, forward as being severely mentally impaired. (This may, to some, be a barrier to applying for a legitimate benefit).

    At the time I was doing this, there was great reluctance to diagnose or recognise this disease, so by the time I applied, some 5 years of back-dated arrears were due, based on the time the LA’s social services had been already involved.

    Another “trick” is that if the rules are the same, 50% of the council tax is exempt from any application of discount. Therefore the 25% and 50% discount rates only apply to 50% of the council tax due. So all is not as it appears to be.

    How little we know of how we are governed.

  • John Hudson

    This IPG led council has for may years boasted about having the lowest council tax in Wales. In 2012/13 the then Leader explained “we have a history of having the lowest council tax in Wales and it is our intention to continue with this”. The current leadership is ploughing the same furrow.

    As the background to the Green Book (thanks Timetraveller) comments, SSAEs are intended to reflect the need to spend and is the mechanism for distributing Revenue (rate) support grant to local authorities to enable them to charge the same council tax for the provision of a similar standard of service.

    Actuals may vary above or below the SSA for an authority as decisions on the levels of service provided varies from authority to authority.

    Ceredigion has been spending up to its full SSAE, while Carmarthenshire spends more. It is interesting to note that this council, over the last 3 years, has spent £41m less than its SSA. You get what you pay for.

    We apparently have been benefiting from a lower council tax and as a consequence may have enjoyed lower service levels. Unless you think that this council is so efficient to have made up the indicative underspend to provide the expected standard service levels.

    For 2015/16 PCC’s SSA was £217m and its approved budget £203m = -£14m.

    For next year the SSA is £217m and its proposed budget £202m = -£15m.

    I do not know what any of this proves, other than that we have considerably less room to move in seeking to cut or reduce services and maintain the lowest council tax in Wales and maintain a acceptable standards of service.

    I am not aware that this guiding policy has ever been reviewed, but then corporate governance, under the personal remit of the CEO and the Leader, has never been allowed to be subjected to scrutiny. What councillor would stand up for increasing council tax, even if it could be proved to be a “good” thing?

    I have found the council tax reduction scheme in the council’s budget = £7.511m in 2015/16, SSA (from Timetraveller above) £7.306m, the revised estimate for 2015/16 is £7.305m, less than the original estimate.

    For 2016/17, with an SSA of £7,090m, the budget includes £7,305m budget report comment that any consequential increase in council tax benefits as a result of increased claimant case-load or higher council tax levels will have to be absorbed by the council – that’s us Malcolm, rather than the council!

    All is not as it seems, because there is also a line for council tax benefits and administration. £704,000 2015/16 original, revised estimate £707,000. Estimate for 2016/7 = £639,000. LESS than the current year, odd given the above warning, or not? This as a corporate estimate, is not subject to scrutiny.

  • Timetraveller

    John, it probably all comes out of the older people’s domiciliary care SSA. A WG funded £60 pw is modest compared to full time care, so in some cases it probably saves money.

    However at the point of needing care it all depends on the care plan, drawn up jointly between social services and medical professions. Delivery of this care then becomes statutory for the authority and will specify specific needs, such as help dressing or even if full time domiciliary care is required. (Funding of it is a separate matter.)

    Many elderly people only enter this system after some incident, such as a hospital admission, often the route is from hospital to a home. Very rarely will extensive needs in a care plan leave the option of staying at home for £60pw.

    Some enlightened authorities set up rehabilitation teams to provide short term intensive care at home in such situations, a positive result if successful was the resident recovers enough to only need minimal support at home. Once you go to a home, there is little chance of recovering that independence and hence a heavier cost on society.

    I don’t know where Pembs are on this scheme, or if they have moved to such practice. In the past I do know that they were significantly tardy on filling vacant social services posts in this area. After all, the less care plans you write out, the less care you have to provide.

    An authority can be challenged to produce a care plan, but how many know the rules? Again this authority has a poor history of informing potential claimants as they should. A cynic would suggest that it is better for old people to just rot away neglected at home and pass away – no expense to the public purse.

    When an authority such as PCC is so focussed on the financial side of this, it can be a rather frightening possibility. I have advised a few people over the years when a relative goes into care, Pembs are not alone, but mercifully it is a minority of authorities who play pass the old person round.

    If you know the rules at the time, they can be forced as these are statutory obligations, but you do have to know the rules and Pembs won’t tell you!

  • John Hudson

    Timetraveller, I took the trouble to attend the Older Persons O&S committee yesterday in the hope of witnessing some incisive questions about the adult services 6 month 2014/15 monitoring report (with overspending and non-achievement of planned reductions), the 2015/16 revised (out-turn) budget and the draft budget proposed for 2016/17.

    My hopes were raised when the acting chairman referred to the dismal performance of O&S committees as pointed out by the council’s external auditor and the need for greater member involvement in the planning and monitoring of savings plans. He, as I, was to be disappointed.

    Notwithstanding the £1m overspend in respect of planned savings not likely to be achieved in the current year, with an estimated overall overspend of £3,379,000 gross expenditure, offset by £2,279,000 income resulting in an estimated net overspend of £852,000. There were no detailed questions about how the expenditure, over and above the approved original budget would be incurred, how the income would be sourced.

    But do not worry, the budget reports states “Not all planned cost reductions/efficiencies fully achieved albeit offset by one off savings during the year, and additional funding from the intermediate Care Fund”. While, the current year 6 month monitoring report provides the comforting assurance that “the Budget will continue to be closely monitored and managed”. This, apparently, was enough for the O&S members.

    As for the prosed budget for next year, planned NET reductions of £3,995,000 are included in the draft budget. The budget for next year also rolls over the non achieved savings from this year. You might have thought that robust questioning would have resulted in the inclusion of non-achieved savings to test the validity of the proposed budget for 2016/17.

    You would have been disappointed. Whether all the necessary detailed work goes on behind closed member only seminar doors is a great unknown, but we are not privy to any detailed answers. We pay but have no say, or apparently any consideration that we might be remotely interested, perhaps more than councillors.

    Perhaps the reporting needs to be more focussed and perhaps more often. Although this has improved under the new finance officer, the basic traditional reporting structure remains, and in my view needs to be challenged in terms of what members need to enable them carry out their statutory responsibilities. Clearly at the moment this is not happening.

  • Timetraveller

    I was told a few years ago that officials tried simply telling service providers they wanted a 10% reduction in prices. This is about the same as trying to tell Tesco you would like 10% off your groceries.

    In fact service providers operate on much thinner margins than Tesco, so it is an even more unrealistic proposal. There are serious inflationary pressures in this sector with minimum wages hikes, legal changes to working practice and introducing pension contributions.

    In such circumstances it is amazing costs could be cut, especially as it has been poorly funded to begin with. It is a demand led service and one does wonder what “efficiency” means. Perhaps the questions members should be asking is exactly how costs can be cut? If it is someone simply dreaming up a 10% cut in contract prices, they can have little idea how the care sector works.

    The sad Seabridge case reminds us only too well how gaps in social education services can have consequences. Let’s hope in Pembrokeshire this particular case isn’t a result of “efficiency”.

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