Heavy Cost of Carmarthenshire’s Loophole Syndrome
“Who pays for the fairy lights?” my daughter asked when viewing the town’s Christmas decorations one year. The answer was all of us, to a greater or lesser extent, whether we wanted to or not.
Those Christmas lights flashed into mind again today, watching the webcast of Carmarthenshire County Council’s special meeting to discuss the Wales Audit Office’s findings that they had made illegal payments.
Mr Tim Kerr QC was down from London for the day. QCs retained as advisers are not usually cheap. There would have been no need to engage a barrister if the county council had accepted the Audit Office’s findings last year. The council, though, is suffering from loophole syndrome, the obsessive search for escape clauses in dense legal texts.
Egged on, as it were, by their legal advisers, the in-power coalition of Labour and ‘Independent’ councillors refused to accept the verdict of Anthony Barrett, the assistant auditor general for Wales, that an indemnity to chief executive Mark James was unlawful. Instead, they voted to ‘note’ the auditor’s findings, and to withdraw the indemnity pending further legal clarification.
The legal loophole, described in a previous post here, is not accepted by the Wales Audit Office. “The law is very clear,” said Mr Barrett, but rather predictably, Mr Tim Kerr QC cast doubt liberally upon the minds of Labour and Independent councillors. The Wales Audit Office is not an authoritative source of law, said Mr Kerr, it is arguable that the council does have the power to grant an indemnity.
The particular indemnity, that granted by the council’s Executive Board to chief executive Mark James to fund his defence of a libel accusation by blogger Jacqui Thompson and – the point at issue – to bring a counterclaim against Mrs Thompson for defamation, was agreed when Cllr Meryl Gravell was council leader.
Exactly what will satisfy the Executive Board that they acted unlawfully is unclear. It would probably have to be a redrafting of the 2006 Order prohibiting publicly funded indemnities for officers or members to make defamation claims against individuals. Redrafting would have to state in simple English and Welsh that there are no exceptions whatsoever to the Order. Who’ll be paying for the redrafting? All of us, naturally.
The council did vote to accept the Audit Office’s findings of unlawful payment of cash to Mr James, in place of employer’s contributions to the local government pension scheme, from which Mr James had opted to withdraw. There were even some apologies for making mistakes. “The process was wrong,” said Cllr Anthony Jones (Labour, Llandybie), who visitors from other lands might well have mistaken for the leader, so authoritatively did he speak.
Plaid Cymru’s Peter Hughes Griffiths (Carmarthen Town North) brought a motion of no confidence in current leader Kevin Madge (Labour, Garnant), deputy leader Pam Palmer (Independent, Abergwili) and past leader Meryl Gravell (Independent, Trimsaran), but Labour and the Independents refused to support it.
Cllr Kevin Madge spoke about chickens coming home to roost (but not his chickens, those belonging to the opposition), about the marvellous new bungalows for the elderly (“something to be proud of”), about his pride in Carmarthenshire being one of the best performing local authorities (in his view). Cllr Pat Jones (Labour, Burry Port) also expressed her delight about the bungalows. Cllr Colin Evans (Labour, Pontamman ) referred to “this prestigious authority”, and Cllr Philip Hughes (Independent, St Clears) claimed that Carmarthenshire has “come out of the recession unscathed” thanks to the good leadership of the officers and the Executive Board.
Leaving aside the moot point whether most residents feel unscathed by the recession, the impression given was of a ruling group now accustomed to living in a bubble of self-congratulation, insulated from opposing points of view. I’d like them to remember who is paying for their fairy lights (and for barristers’ opinions).
Pat Dodd Racher