Untangling the web

Oh, what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practise to deceive.
(Sir Walter Scott)

Which brings me to the subject of what actually happened in the Mik Smith affair.

Former PCC youth worker Smith, you will recall, was jailed for six years in 2014 for child abuse offences, unconnected with his employment with the council.

The council put out a press release following the court case:

1st July, 2014


Pembrokeshire County Council welcomes today’s conviction of Michael Smith at Swansea Crown Court. Justice has been achieved for a vulnerable young person and our thoughts are with that young person and their family.

An effective piece of joint working between the Police and Social Services in Pembrokeshire has contributed to this successful prosecution.

The offences for which he has been convicted do not relate to his period of employment with the Council.

Michael ‘Mik’ Smith was employed as a youth worker for Pembrokeshire County Council but was dismissed in January, 2012.

It is a matter of fact that there were significant failings in the disciplinary standards within the Council’s Education directorate in 2005 when Mr Smith was the subject of various allegations about inappropriate behaviour.

Whilst a joint investigation by the Council and Dyfed-Powys Police in 2005 revealed no criminal activity or allegations of sexual abuse significant failings in applying the disciplinary process was brought to the Authority’s attention by the national inspectorates in 2011, leading to formal intervention from Welsh Government – intervention the Authority has accepted and acted on.

Since that time the Council has completely changed its procedures and management of the Education department and is confident that the failings of nine years ago would not be repeated now. No manager from the former Education directorate involved in the decision-making in 2005 is currently employed by the Authority.

Despite a further joint investigation with police, we are yet to receive an allegation that he abused children whilst employed as a youth worker.

However, we urge anyone with any concerns to come forward and contact our duty team on 01437 776444 or the police on 101. They can do so in complete confidence and in the full knowledge that these will be robustly investigated.”

You will notice that the council is apologising for flaws in an investigation in 2005, but, as we will see, this was only half the story.

The day after Smith’s court appearance (July 2) members were called to a briefing by officers chaired by Cabinet member for safeguarding, Cllr Sue Perkins.

During the run-up to the trial, Old Grumpy had discovered another disturbing fact – in 2010, while still employed by the council – Smith had applied to become a foster parent and the the head of the council’s youth service had given him a reference which made no mention of his previous disciplinary record.

When I raised this during the briefing, I was told that this was because the verbal warning issued in 2005 would only remain on Smith’s file for one year.

However, as I pointed out, both the verbal warning and the reference had been administered by the head of the youth service, so there was no need for him to consult the files.

In anticipation of Smith’s conviction, both Cllr Paul Miller and I had put down questions to the upcoming council meeting on July 17.

The minutes can be read here agenda items 39-43, 50 and 51.

As can be seen from the minutes, the answers provided by the Leader referred exclusively to the investigation in 2005.

In addition Cllr Tessa Hodgson put down a Notice of Motion to the July meeting of council: That this Authority produce a full and detailed report for Members into all the events surrounding the recent conviction of Michael Smith, including the investigation in 2005 of the allegations of inappropriate behaviour made against him.

This NoM came back to the council in October when Cabinet member Sue Perkins promised that a report would be produced in time for the Christmas meeting which was scheduled to be held on December 11.

As can be seen from the minutes of the October meeting (Agenda item 71) the debate was predicated on the 2005 investigation.

Members were eventually called to a private briefing on November 28, which was, coincidentally, two days after the deadline for submitting questions for the meeting on December 11.

During this briefing, it became clear that officers were making reference to a written document and at Cllr Hodgson’s insistence members were provided with a copy.

Unfortunately, with proceedings already underway, members did not have time to read this document with the care it deserved.

However, even a cursory glance revealed that there had been a second investigation into Smith’s conduct in 2006 following which he was given a first written warning:

Mik Smith

And what was disturbing was that this written warning had been administered by the same county youth officer who had provided Smith with a clean reference to support his application to become a foster parent in 2010.

Also of concern is that, while the first investigation into Smith’s conduct had been carried out by an independent (external) qualified social worker, this second probe had been left in the hands of what was described as “a trainee from the chief executive’s department”.

And, to make matters worse, following the trainee’s finding that Smith had indulged in inappropriate behaviour towards children in his care, there was no child protection procedure involving the police and social workers, as there had been in the first.

Common sense would seem to dictate that a second complaint about the same person in less than a year should have set the red lights flashing, but, in fact, this second complaint seems to have been treated less seriously than the first.

When I questioned Cabinet member Sue Perkins about this rather cavalier attitude to the second complaint at last Thursday’s council meeting, she claimed that it was “standard practice” to put trainees in charge of these investigations.

Of course that wasn’t true because only a year earlier, in almost identical circumstances, an independent social worker had been engaged to carry out the task.

This revelation of the second investigation cast some serious doubts on the answers provided by Cllr Jamie Adams at the meeting in July last year.

Indeed, as I said following last July’s meeting, the object of the exercise was to put as much distance as possible between Mrs Thomas’ whistleblowing complaint and Mr Parry-Jones.

To that end, Cllr Adams recounted a conversation with the chief executive.

The minutes of that meeting record:

“…the Leader stated that the Chief Executive had sought and was given assurance that any evidence of alleged inappropriate behaviour with children had been the subject of child protection procedures.

He further stated that the Chief Executive had been given that assurance and it was the case that the evidence at the time had been the subject of a joint investigation by senior social work managers and the Police.”

This paints a rosy picture of the chief executive taking all necessary steps to see that the correct procedures were followed.

However, that is difficult to reconcile with events in 2006 when no “joint investigation by senior social work managers and the police” appears to have been carried out.

And this cannot be down to inadvertence because the chief executive must have been aware of an investigation carried out by a trainee in his department.

When I asked the Leader whether, during his conversation with the chief executive, any explanation had been offered as to why the second investigation had been carried out by a trainee and why no “child protection procedure” had been initiated following the second investigation he answered weakly “I simply do not recall”.

When I pressed him for an explanation as to why the second investigation had been treated less seriously than the first, all he could say was “…it is difficult for me to answer, I apologise for that…” though he then went on to repeat the patently false claim that “…it was standard practice for management trainees to undertake investigations of this sort”.

Cllr Adams was also in some difficulty when I asked him about his statement at the council meeting last July that: “…overall, the full system of vetting of prospective foster carers worked and Mr Smith had been prevented from being a foster carer. He advised that, as Members would appreciate, information about all previous child protection inquiries was held in the Directorate which was considering his application.”

That, of course, didn’t stack up with the claim that the records of Smith’s 2005 verbal warning and the written warning in 2006 had only been held on the council’s files for one year.

In a rare outbreak of candour, the Leader admitted: “Written warnings were destroyed after one year, so could not have been provided as I suggested…”

In fact Smith’s rejection as a foster parent only came about because a member of the fostering panel just happened to know about his previous disciplinary record.

In short, it was a matter of pure luck rather than the operation of robust systems involving information about “all previous child protection procedures” being held on the education department’s records.

What all this demonstrates is that the answers the Leader provided in July 2014 to questions by Paul Miller and myself now lack even a shred of credibility.

The Smith affair first came to light following the scathing CSSIW report on PCC’s child safeguarding practices published in the summer of 2011.

In addition to a litany of procedural failings, the report identified a culture where officers kept members in the dark and “Generally cases are only discussed [with elected members] when they may have a high media profile and cause reputational damage.” And in another part of the report: “This lack of transparency raises questions as to whether the protection of the child is always given priority over the reputation of the authority.”

CSSIW identified 25 cases that gave rise to concern and that became 26 when Sue Thomas – the former youth worker who blew the whistle on Smith in 2005, and was sacked in early 2006 – wrote to the Welsh Government Ministers drawing their attention to the matter.

A Ministerial Board headed by a retired High Court Judge was parachuted into county hall and, in parallel, the council established a cross-party safeguarding accountability and improvement board (SAIB), chaired by the authority’s then leader, Cllr John Davies, to review the 26 cases.

It is not clear whether these two boards were ever told the full truth about Smith’s case.

At its meeting on 19 October 2011 SAIB recived a short report on all the cases.

In respect of Case 26 [Smith] the report said:

“Allegations of inappropriate behaviour over several years.
Member of staff suspended following strategy meeting and subject of S47 investigation.
Individual concerned subsequently applied to be a foster carer, manager’s reference did not mention previous allegations.
Management of service to be considered as part of safeguarding improvement programme.”

There was a further report on case 26 to the meeting on 14 December which read:

“Case 26 – Allegations against employee of inappropriately reckless beheaviour. Employee had been warned in the past about previous behaviour.
Employee now suspended and remained suspended pending outcome of ongoing investigation; and also subject to ongoing disciplinary process.
Further report would be brought forward when investigation complete.
The individual involved had applied to become a foster carer and his manager’s reference had not declared his inappropriate behaviour, which should have been so declared.
Separate investigation was being pursued and separate lines of action to be taken, in regard to the matter of references.
The individual did not become a foster parent.”

At SAIB’s meeting on 18 January 2012 members were told:

“This case [26] remains active and as a result it is not appropriate to include it in this review.”

And at the meeting on March 6 2012 it was reported:

“Case 26: Individual dismissed in January 2012”.

So the assurance given at the meeting on December 14 that a “Further report would be brought forward when investigation complete.” doesn’t appear to have been followed through.

Nor is it clear from the minutes of SAIB that the promise that “Separate investigation was being pursued and separate lines of action to be taken, in regard to the matter of references” ever saw the light of day.

When I asked Cllr Perkins about the outcome of this “separate investigation” last Thursday she told council:

“…the head of youth service had an assessment of his training and development needs in relation to safeguarding. This was undertaken by council social workers and the assessment recommended an individual package of training and support around how to approach and understand safeguarding issues and how to manage disciplinary investigations. This was put in place.”

So, not even a slap on the wrist, even though the failure to mention Smith’s disciplinary record in the fostering reference could have committed vulnerable children into the hands of someone who was known to have an unhealthy interest in children and who we now know is a full-blown paedophile.

There was one moment of light relief when I noticed the former Leader, Cllr John Davies, getting agitated as I questioned his role on the affair, so I offered to give way and let him have his say.

I can only assume someone off-stage left (his right) advised him not to get involved because he turned to them and can be heard saying: “Don’t worry, I’m going to enjoy this!”

It takes arrogance of a high order, and a warped sense of fun, to “enjoy” explaining your leading role in one of the most shameful episodes in the council’s history.

I understand that, following the meeting last July, Sue Thomas complained to the Ombudsman that Cllr Adams had misled the council over her correspondence with senior officers of the council, including the chief executive.

The Ombudsman concluded that, rather than lying, the Leader had used clever political language and, therefore, there was nothing to investigate.

Too clever by half – and not half as clever as he thinks he is, it seems.

I wonder what view the Ombudsman might now take, given what we now know about this grubby business?

Sue Thomas’s version of events can be found in the comments section of this article in the Western Telegraph.