Thu. Apr 18th, 2019

Daylight Robbery

Guardians of the Public’s Money?

Our governments at all levels are trusted to spend the public’s money in the public’s interest. Of course MPs. AMs and councillors are all human and mistakes are made. But what happens when our elected leaders get deliberately involved with secretly and unlawfully gifting away our money to the wealthy, which is very questionable? Who polices public spending?

Who Is Actually in Charge?

This also begs the question “Who is in charge?” How much of Wales is run by unelected public servants rather than elected representatives?

The Wales Audit Office is the official protector of the public purse and will investigate public bodies if a complaint is made. However even if a public body is found to have misused public money unlawfully, in Wales very little may be done about it.

Setting a Poor Example

Take Carmarthenshire County Council. Should Carmarthenshire County Executive Board Councillors have bankrolled their CEO Mark James with a “secret pay rise” and his legal fees for a libel action against a local blogger. (total of both “grants” I believe to be around £80,000). These decisions were made in private meetings in the presence of Mark James, although he was the beneficiary. There is a statement that he is a wealthy man and would not need to keep any libel damages he might be awarded, they would go to the council. When damages were given, he changed his mind and has been paid £250 per month by Mrs Thompson, who will be in debt to him for years to come and will lose her house if she doesn’t pay. He’s not called “Teflon Mark” for nothing.

Protection by Legal Officers

None of the councillors who gave Mark James the money have been disciplined. They are protected by the CCC Legal Officer, Linda Rees Jones, who despite the Wales Audit Office ruling that these payments were unlawful, states that she holds the firm opinion that the WAO are wrong.

In a similar case in Pembrokeshire the CEO was obliged to return a secret salary raise identical to the scheme from his retirement package. He had to retire when his Councillors had a vote of no confidence in him over the pension scam. To date, the CCC Head of Legal has not produced her legal argument as to why she has come to the opinion that the Wales Audit Office was wrong, but dismissed the idea of Mr James repaying anything.

“Thank You Very Much – I’m off!”

Mark James is due to retire in June and may well take his ill gotten gains with him unless the Wales Audit Office takes action. Why wealthy people like Mr James, working in the public sector, with pay packages bigger than our First Minister, want to milk the public purse for even more is mysterious. Mr James also has other sources of private income. This is not theft as it was all approved by elected Executive Board Councillors, even if they did it secretly and concealed their decisions from the rest of the councillors.

No Action By Past Opposition Party Criticisers

Eventually the unlawful payments were exposed. Council leadership changed to Plaid Cymru, the only party group not involved in the initial scams. However, even though Plaid had been rightly critical in opposition, they decided not to take any action or even publicly discuss the problem. Whether it was fear of Mr James or love of their new salary grades, or both, is not clear.

What is clear is the inability of Welsh Government to stop this abuse of the public purse.

What Qualifies as ‘Special Measures’?

Now, if the behaviour of a welsh local council is found to threaten the well being of individual residents or groups, the Welsh Government can put that Council in “special measures”, where the councillors are all only paid basic salary and the problem “turned around” after thorough assessment and independent advice. This can happen for example in cases of Education departments failing or poor standards in Social Services where individuals may be in danger of suffering harm from the poor performance of a council. Giving away money to senior officers does not make the grade. Carmarthenshire have taken advantage of the Welsh Government’s seemingly relaxed position on money management.

Who’s The Boss?

Do we have a weak, national government which tolerates unlawful use of money in major public authorities? Neither the beneficiary of the improperly allocated funds. in this case, Chief Executive Mark James, nor the Executive Board Councillors who used their authority to give him the money, got into trouble for it. Carmarthenshire County Council have subsequently used their own legal department to dispute the opinion of the WAO.

Allowing senior local government civil servants to convince their councillors to unlawfully pay them even more than their already generous salaries is ridiculous. If Assembly Members awarded Senior Assembly Civil Servants secret pay rises and financed their libel court cases for them, would they get away with it too?

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