Loose Language, Harsh Words and Wasted Money
Worrying issues from today’s meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council:
- There are 74 councillors, but only 56 were present to vote. One in every four stayed away, some unavoidably due to illness, but surely there is no plague sweeping through the county, sufficiently contagious to incapacitate one member in four?
- The issue of the indemnity granted to chief executive Mark James, to defend himself against a libel action by a local blogger and to mount a counter-action of his own, prompted the said chief executive to launch a blast against the blogger and against a councillor who had been prepared to give evidence on the blogger’s behalf. The blogger had waged a “vindictive defamation campaign” to which he had every right to respond, insisted the chief. The blogger had no right of reply, and although one would have expected the councillor concerned, Cllr Sian Caiach (PeopleFirst, Hengoed), to have been allowed to counter the accusation of supporting a blogger against the wishes of the chief executive, council chairman Cllr Daff Davies (Ind, Llansteffan) metaphorically stamped on her fingers and made her sit down.
How did we arrive at such a state of affairs? Councillors’ apparently declining participation rates in local government deliberations, and an apparently increasing tendency for council staff to devote time and resources to oppose and deter critics? How marked are these two possible/probable trends, and are they linked?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, but do feel that coverage and scrutiny of local government have weakened immeasurably because of the decline of local media, in no small part due to the advance of the internet, where resides the advertising which used to bankroll local papers (but which has also created the space for bloggers to blog). While the Establishment has always been powerful, the local media used to provide more of a counter-balance than it can afford to do nowadays. Bloggers do their best, but the lone blogger has to explore the legal labyrinth unaided, and without the benefit of second opinions, while in the days of strong local newspapers and proper training, reporters would have to learn about the law, and thereby could often work on firmer ground.
Today, the council (or the three in four who turned up) have at least accepted that their constitution should not at present allow public money to be used to indemnify individual officers. The power to offer indemnity, based on Part 1 of Section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972, the ‘carte blanche’ clause allowing councils to do, in effect, anything they like, is not to be reinstated (but neither is it definitively abolished from the constitution). Lesley Griffiths, the Welsh Government’s minister for local government and government business, had told Carmarthenshire County Council in a letter dated May 6th that interpretation of the impact of the 2006 Local Authorities (Indemnities for Members and Officers) Order prohibiting indemnities, on the ‘yes you can’ provisions of Section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972, would have to be a matter for the courts.
Councillors were presented with a report from Roger Jones, the retiring head of resources, and head of administration and law and monitoring officer, Linda Rees-Jones, that the original decision to allow Mark James an indemnity had been in accordance with Welsh Government guidance, but faced with First Minister Carwyn Jones’ opposite view expressed yesterday, they opted to kick the contentious matter as far into the long grass as possible, hoping it would lose itself amidst the undergrowth. They voted to merely ‘note’ the officers’ report, i.e. neither to agree nor disagree with it. An amendment from Plaid Cymru councillor Emlyn Dole (Llannon) to accept the verdict of the Wales Audit Office that the indemnity was unlawful, was lost by 24 votes to 31 with one abstention.
As for seeking clarification in the courts, there seemed no appetite for that expensive course of action in any part of the council chamber. The price of arguing with the Wales Audit Office is already thought to be in the range £50,000 to £70,000, when the council is crying poverty and cutting services.
A simpler answer, to my non-legal mind, would be for the Welsh Government to revise the 2006 Order, to make it clear that in respect of indemnities, Section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972 is disapplied.
Clearer drafting of the Order would have saved many, many thousands of £s of public money which would have been far better spent on public services.
Pat Dodd Racher