Bogey men

Following Mr Parry-Jones’ gold-plated exit, there has been much talk of a change in culture in the Kremlin on Cleddau. I fear it will be an uphill task.

Unfortunately, a situation has developed where the ruling clique uses its majority to get its own way by hook or by crook. One much used tactic is to claim that what the opposition is proposing is unlawful. Clearly, if that can be established, no right thinking person could possibly support it.

So we have the rules of sub judice trotted out to prevent the release of information, even though what is being proposed has nothing to do with the Contempt of Court Act for which sub judice is shorthand.

Another favourite is “legal privilege” which protects the confidentiality of lawyer-client communications. However, legal privilege only binds the lawyer – the client is perfectly free to publicise the lawyer’s advice. Whether or not they choose to do so is a purely tactical, rather than a legal, matter.

There is also much confusion about the rules regarding the exclusion of the public.

Here is the Leader, Cllr Jamie Adams telling the October meeting of council why it should go into private session to discuss the chief executive’s pay-off.

“Our legal representatives are here to represent us in ensuring that we get the best interest for this council. No other reason.
So I think we need to be very clear about that on this occasion.
We need to be trusted with the democracy that has been placed in our hands.
We need to recognise that the law has to be complied with. And one of the dangers we have of seeking populism – of seeking to have our washing aired in public – is that we do not comply with the law.
And if you want to put the council at risk that is the way to go about it.
The only opportunity to comply with the law and act in the best interests of this council is to have the freedom of debate as Cllr Lloyd has suggested – and he’s well placed to understand this matter – so that we can make the right decision.
Because ultimately that is what we will be judged on – the decision.”

There are three references to compliance with the law, which I have underlined.

The law that Cllr Adams was so keen to follow is to be found in S100 Local Government Act 1972. What it says is that, as a general rule, council meetings should be held in public. It then goes on to define the circumstances where this presumption can be overturned.

The first exception involves confidential information provided to the council by central government, the discussion of which must (my emphasis) be held in private session.

Then there are various classes of “exempt information” which the council may (my emphasis) resolve to go into private session to debate.

Among the descriptions of exempt information are legal advice and matters relating to employees. So the council was perfectly entitled to vote to exclude the public while the chief executive’s pay-off was debated.

However, it was a matter of discretion and not, as Cllr Adams was seeking to claim, a legal requirement.

This use of false legal doctrine as a bogey man to frighten the children into doing what they are told needs to be abandoned if the council is return to the path of democracy.

And his claim that opposition members were “seeking to have our washing aired in public” is another example of the flawed culture that holds sway.

One of the most telling criticisms in the scathing CSSIW report that was published in the summer of 2011 was that the council gave a higher priority to defending its own reputation than ensuring the safety of children in its care.

This washing that Cllr Adams refers to as “our washing” belongs to the public who have elected us to see to it that it is laundered properly. Pembrokeshire County Council is a taxpayer-funded democratic body, not a private debating club.

Sadly, too many members see themselves as representing the council rather than the people who elected them.

So, while there are no doubt occasions when it is in the public interest to retreat behind closed doors, the presumption should be that, whenever possible, the public’s business should be discussed in open session.

As for the “democracy that has been placed in our hands” that puts members under a duty to reach the best possible decisions on behalf of the people they represent. To do that requires the application of logic to the facts.

This is no easy task because the facts are not always clear cut, and avoiding logical traps is also fraught with difficulty. However, we have to do the best we can and that can never involve making decisions based on misrepresentations of the law.

In the meantime, have a nice Christmas.