Saturday was the anniversary of what became known as the St Valentine’s Massacre – the extraordinary council meeting on February 14 last year, when a large number of opposition councillors were debarred from taking part in a debate on a notice of motion, signed by Cllr Paul Miller and several others, calling for disciplinary proceedings to be instituted against former chief executive over unlawful pension payments.
Many of us thought we had been stitched up, and evidence that I have now obtained seems to support that view.
The outstanding question, and one which is of great constitutional significance, is the part played by the Monitoring Officer in this carefully choreographed hatchet-job.
The first part of the meeting was taken up by a report by the Wales Audit Office on the legality of the pension payments and, at great expense, the council had engaged Mr Tim Kerr QC and a pension specialist to defend their position.
In the event, their expertise was not required because the council decided to throw in the towel and accept the WAO’s view that the pension payments were unlawful.
However, Mr Kerr’s work was not done because he was required to ensure that Cllr Miller’s notice of motion was derailed.
With this in mind, the Monitoring Officer had written to the QC the previous day alerting him to the fact that questions were likely to be asked about the impartiality of some members because of comments they had made to two local newspapers.
The Monitoring Officer has kindly provided me with his note to Mr Kerr and copies of the newspaper cuttings that accompanied it.
I am given to understand that the issue of how the delicate question was to be raised was discussed at a secret Cabinet meeting prior to the extraordinary council meeting and that it was left in the capable(?) hands of the then deputy leader Rob Lewis.
And sure enough, as soon as debate on the NoM got underway, up bobbed Cllr Keith Lewis, bang on cue, to ask the questions that the Monitoring Officer had anticipated.
The webcast shows:
03.49.20 Cllr Keith Lewis: “Chair, before we move on to item 4, can I ask for a point of clarification, because during an earlier debate the point of attendance was brought up and I feel uncomfortable because like many members of this council I have given an opinion to the local press on how I would vote as regards the chief executive. My question to the Monitoring Officer, now, is have I put myself in a prejudicial position and should I declare an interest?”
The Monitoring Officer explained that members shouldn’t come to the meeting with closed minds because that could leave any decision open to legal challenge by the chief executive.
Tim Kerr QC reinforced the points made by the Monitoring Officer, and described how he had been “shown” newspaper cuttings which appeared to indicate that certain members had made statements which amounted to prejudging the issue.
When challenged by Cllr Tessa Hodgson, Mr Kerr admitted that, rather than being “shown” the newspapers, they had been in an envelope left on the back seat of the council’s chauffeur-driven limo that had been sent to pick him up from Port Talbot station the previous day.
03.56 Cllr Keith Lewis: “As I was the person who raised the point in terms of clarification – as I gave a positive view when asked by the Telegraph, I feel I have to declare an interest and withdraw.”
At 03.56.44, some seven minutes after he declared his interest, Cllr Lewis gathered up his papers and withdrew from the chamber, as evidenced by this screenshot from the webcast:
Cllr Bob Kilmister then spoke, and at 03.57.07 Cllr Peter Morgan, another of those who had been quoted in WT supporting Mr Parry-Jones, can be seen squeezing behind him carrying his rolled-up agenda papers as he, too, withdrew from the chamber:
03.58.20 Cllr Paul Miller said he had received advice from Labour party lawyers that what he had told the newspapers was predisposition not predetermination and, therefore, he and his Labour colleagues intended to remain in the meeting.
03.59.18 Cllr Keith Lewis’ head can be seen bobbing along the bottom of the webcast as he re-entered the chamber and returned to his seat:
03.59.34 while Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse is speaking, Cllr Peter Morgan can also be seen to have resumed his place.
There followed a lengthy exposition of the law by Mr Kerr and at 04.10.30 Cllr Keith Lewis spoke again.
“As I stated earlier in this debate, I still feel strongly that I have acted improperly in declaring clearly my point of view on an item that before we were debating it in this chamber. So regardless of whether my name is on that list or not, I still feel that with my understanding of the Code of Conduct I should leave, and that will be my position.”
Cllr Lewis then sat down.
After some discussion Mr Kerr read out a list of those who he thought had made statements to the press which were prejudicial: Cllrs Mike Stoddart, Vivien Stoddart, Rob Bowen, Myles Pepper, Tessa Hodgson, Jacob Williams, Michael Williams, Rhys Sinnett, Guy Woodham and Paul Miller.
Of course, with those ten debarred, concerns the IPPG might have about the outcome of any vote were taken care of.
Cllr Woodham pointed out that Cllr Keith Lewis had admitted giving the chief executive a positive endorsement, but his name wasn’t on the list read out by Mr Kerr.
Cllr Reg Owens said he had given a quote to the Western Telegraph but his name wasn’t on the list and Cllr Michael Williams said it was “rather odd” that those who had made comments adverse to the chief executive seemed to have been singled out.
The Monitoring Officer explained: “All I can say is that I gave Mr Kerr copies of the newspapers I received. I haven’t seen any press cuttings regarding Cllr Keith Lewis.”
Cllr David Bryan said he had made a comment, but his name hadn’t been read out by Mr Kerr.
The QC then consulted his press cuttings and confirmed that Cllr Bryan, who had told the Pembrokeshire Herald “Yes. Bryn Parry-Jones must go” had a prejudicial interest.
Cllr Rhys Sinnett, who was on the list, then got up and said that he stood by his remarks in the newspaper (Yes, I believe the chief executive should resign), but he was going to declare an interest and withdraw.
This seemed to please the ranks of the IPPG because they burst into spontaneous applause.
Whether they were impressed with Cllr Sinnett’s oratory, or simply relieved that things were going to plan, is anyone’s guess.
04.22.59 Cllr Keith Lewis: “The situation hasn’t changed as far as I’m concerned. I am quite honest that I gave an opinion to the Western Telegraph which I regret because I think it was naive and I think that with the exception of those people who are associated with the notice of motion all those councillors who have been categorical in their opinion should be aware of the situation we are now standing (My emphasis).
I have no desire to be outside the Code of Conduct that’s expected of me so I will retire. I ask that my declaration of interest be recorded.”
It is interesting to speculate why Cllr Lewis should be so keen to offer the advice that “all those councillors” should be “aware of the situation”.
Perhaps finding himself with only Peter Morgan for company after his first exit had some bearing on the matter.
That’s how things panned out during the meeting – now I will try to explain what actually happened…
The Western Telegraph (WT) of 5 February 2014 carried a two page spread on the unlawful pensions issue.
One page was given over to individual members’ responses to the newspaper’s question as to whether they thought the chief executive should be suspended, or asked to resign. The second page was devoted to a summary of the members’ responses.
The Pembrokeshire Herald, published two days later on 7 February, also got in on the act with an almost identical piece.
The only substantial difference was that four members (Cllrs Keith Lewis, John Allen-Mirehouse, Peter Morgan and Owen James) had given Mr Parry-Jones a vote of confidence in the WT, but by the time the PH came out two days later his supporters were all taking the legally correct line: “Not sure, would like to hear all the evidence before coming to a decision”.
Significantly, the copies of the newspapers left on the back seat of the limo didn’t include the page from the WT giving individual member’s views, including, of course, those like Cllrs Keith Lewis and Peter Morgan who had expressed their support for the chief executive.
Another strange thing is that there were 15 members quoted in the PH calling for suspension/resignation while the list read out by Mr Kerr contained only ten names.
It would be surprising if a sharp-eyed QC had made such an error, so we must assume he was using a list provided by someone else (see Mr Kerr’s exchange with Cllr David Bryan, below) .
Further support for this theory comes from the order of the names read out by Mr Kerr which bears little resemblance to order in which members’ comments appear in the newspaper.
Ignoring the five omissions, the order should have been Mike Stoddart, Rhys Sinnett, Miles Pepper, Jacob Williams, Tessa Hodgson, Rod Bowen, Michael Williams, Guy Woodham, Paul Miller and Vivien Stoddart.
Of course, with those ten out of the way, the Leader could sleep easily in his bed knowing that, even if some of his own group failed to toe the party line, he could carry the day.
There was a problem, however, because (a) someone might point out that the supporters of the chief executive should also be excluded and (b) there was no easy way to raise the subject without making it obvious that there was an orchestrated attempt to rig the vote in Cllr Adams’ favour.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man – step forward Cllr Keith Lewis.
So, before Mr Kerr could give us the benefit of his advice, Cllr Lewis was up on his feet admitting that he had been a naughty boy and warning all the other naughty boys and girls to avoid breaching the Code of Conduct.
As the mathematicians among you will already have worked out, a four for ten swap was a very good deal – even better if all 15 antis could be persuaded to leave.
So Cllrs Keith Lewis and Peter Morgan left the meeting, fully expecting to be followed out by a gaggle of opposition members.
At that point Cllr Miller threw a spanner in the works by declaring that he had no intention of leaving.
So a potential net gain of six was suddenly transformed into a net loss of two and, soon after Cllr Miller sat down, our two keepers of the flame of the Code of Conduct were back in their places.
This chain of events has been the subject of much speculation with the favoured explanation being that someone outside the chamber was watching on the webcast and sensing an arithmetical disaster had ordered the two members back into the chamber.
If Cllr Peter Morgan is to be believed, that is exactly what happened because he told the disciplinary committee that “Ben came down and told us nobody else was leaving and to ‘get back in there!'”
Ben is assistant chief executive, Ben Pykett.
This raises two issues (a) when a member declares an interest and withdraws from the meeting the Code requires that they remain outside until that item of business has been disposed of. So, by ordering/encouraging the two members to return, Mr Pykett was soliciting a breach of the Code, and (b) council officers are required to be politically neutral and acting as chief whip for the ruling group doesn’t seem to fit the bill.
The important point is that made by Cllr Michael Williams – the absence of the names of the chief executive’s supporters from Mr Kerr’s list.
The reason, as I’ve explained above, was that he wasn’t provided with a copy of the relevant page from the WT which contained these names.
The question arises: who decided that Mr Kerr shouldn’t be provided with a copy of the full coverage contained in the WT?
Two possibilities arise (a) the Monitoring Officer just passed on what he had been given by the “number of members” who had raised concerns, or (b) the Monitoring Officer did the selection himself.
This was an issue pressed with vigour by Cllr Mike Evans.
At 4.04 the Monitoring Officer said: “I received information which concerned surveys carried out by two newspapers. I obtained copies of these newspapers and I felt I needed advice from Mr Kerr as to whether this was tantamount to predetermination and would cause problems for members. I gave the information to Mr Kerr in an envelope so he could read it on the way to the offices where we then discussed it fully.”
But not so “fully” that Mr Kerr noticed that the information from the WT was incomplete, nor that Cllr David Bryan (“For resignation. Yes. Bryn-Parry-Jones must go!”) and Tony Brinsden (“For resignation. If Bryn Parry-Jones had any common decency he would have resigned by now. I definitely say he should resign”) both of whose comments appeared in the PH, had been left off the list.
There was an interesting exchange between Cllr Bryan and Mr Kerr at 4.23 when Cllr Bryan asked if his name should have been on the list read out by the QC.
Mr Kerr: “I didn’t catch your name but if you’re not on the list it’s either because I didn’t see a press cutting about you, or, if I did, I didn’t think you were on the wrong side of the line.”
Having been told Cllr Bryan’s name, Mr Kerr consulted his copy of the PH which recorded “For resignation. Yes. Bryn-Parry-Jones must go!” and came back: “I’m sorry. I think your name should be on the list.”
Of course it is not absolutely clear from the Monitoring Officer’s statement whether “I obtained copies of these newspapers” refers to the newspapers themselves, or copies of extracts.
However, the following exchange between Cllr Michael Evans and the Monitoring Officer might cast some light on the subject (emphasis mine throughout).
Mike Evans: “Did you give the information [to Mr Kerr] on those who had supported the chief executive?”
Monitoring Officer: “As far as I’m aware, I did.” [He hadn’t]
Mike Evans: “As far as you are aware? Mr Kerr would you still have those papers with you?”
“The Monitoring Officer can’t remember 24 hours ago whether he gave you the cuttings which showed members who had supported the chief executive. I’m wondering if you still have those paper cuttings with you?”
[Mr Kerr then rummaged through his file and confirmed that he had the cuttings and at that point Cllr Evans spotted deputy leader Rob Lewis with copies of the newspapers.]
Monitoring Officer: “All I can say is that the information I gave [to Mr Kerr] comprised copies of newspapers or articles – pages – that I received. I apologise for those missed off.”
Mike Evans: “You received copies of those newspapers. You received them from who? You didn’t receive them you actually bought the papers.”
Monitoring Officer: “The papers were in the office. My attention was drawn to the surveys and I asked for the copies to be provided (inaudible)”.
Mike Evans: “Who drew your attention to the surveys, then?”
Monitoring Officer: “That’s confidential, as you know.” [hoots of derision]
Mr Kerr then interjected to say: “I haven’t seen any press cuttings referring to Cllr [Keith] Lewis, so I can only look at the ones I’m shown.”
There are two possibilities: that the Monitoring Officer selected the press cuttings “shown” to Mr Kerr, or that he merely passed on those selected by someone else.
The first scenario would cast serious doubts on the Monitoring Officer’s impartiality, while the second would raise questions about his failure to carry out due diligence by checking that the information being provided by the ruling group gave a complete picture.
After all if, as he told Cllr Mike Evans, “The papers were in the office” it shouldn’t have been too much of a challenge to discover whether what he had been given corresponded with what was in them.
As it was, we had a £350-an-hour QC engaged to give advice to members with only half the evidence at his disposal.
Unfortunately, we will probably never know the full truth of what went on because the Monitoring Officer is due to retire at the end of April.