Feigning interest

Ahead of last Thursday’s debate on the future of secondary education in the north of the county, all members received an email from the monitoring officer offering advice on declarations of interest as set out in the Code of Conduct.

Apparently, he had received “a couple of requests for advice on the application of the code to the business to be conducted at the above meeting.”

Remembering the note in the brown envelope left on the back seat of the council’s limo sent to pick up Tim Kerr QC from Port Talbot station on the day before what became known as the St Valentine’s Day massacre, Old Grumpy decided to take a closer look.

By and large the advice was straightforward, but one part was, to my mind, seriously flawed.

“If a member has close personal acquaintances (paras 10 (2) (c)and (19)) who are governors to the schools mentioned, that relationship might reasonably be interpreted as a significant interest which may influence their decision and I would advise that they declare a prejudicial interest and not take part in the decision-making process.”

This led to the situation where, on the advice of the monitoring officer, Cllr Rob Summons declared a prejudicial interest on the grounds that he was employed by Cllr Mark Edwards who is local authority appointed governor at Sir Thomas Picton school.

Bizarrely, because Cllr Edwards is appointed to the governing body by PCC, he was exempted from having to declare a prejudicial interest by 12(2) of the Code of Conduct (see below) and only had to declare a personal interest.

So, according to the Monitoring Officer’s interpretation, the member with the direct personal interest (Mark Edwards) was less restricted than his employee (Rob Summons).

The important distinction between personal and prejudicial interests is that, with the latter, the member must withdraw from the chamber, while those with a mere personal interest must declare it, but can take part in the debate and vote.

The Code of Conduct provides:

Prejudicial Interests
12.(1) Subject to sub-paragraph (2) below, where you have a personal interest in any business of your authority you also have a prejudicial interest in that business if the interest is one which a member of the public with knowledge of the relevant facts would reasonably regard as so significant that it is likely to prejudice your judgement of the public interest.

Sub-paragraph (2) lists exemptions to the rule including school governors appointed by the authority (PCC in this case).

Clearly, 12(1) requires that, before you can have a prejudicial interest, you must first have a personal interest.

Personal interests are defined by 10 (2):

“You must regard yourself as having a personal interest in any business of your authority if
(a) it relates to, or is likely to affect: [followed by a long list of qualifying circumstances including]

(viii) any body to which you have been elected, appointed or nominated by your authority;
(ix) any: public authority or body exercising functions of a public nature.

And:

(c) a decision upon it might reasonably be regarded as affecting: (i) your well-being or financial position, or that of a person with whom you live, or any person with whom you have a close personal association;”

(viii) includes school governors appointed by PCC and (ix) includes school governors appointed by some other route e.g. community and parent governors.

Another who was caught by the monitoring officer’s interpretation was Cllr David Bryan, whose wife is a community governor of one of the schools under review.

When I challenged the monitoring officer on his advice he cited 10(2) (c) a decision upon it might reasonably be regarded as affecting: (i) your well-being or financial position, or that of a person with whom you live, or any person with whom you have a close personal association.

He then went on to read out the definition of close personal association which begins: 19. “Close personal association should be given a very wide meaning. It will include family members with whom you do not share accommodation; e.g. parents, in-laws, children and step-children (whether formally adopted or not), grandparents and grandchildren, uncles, aunts, cousins, nephews and nieces and the partners of such persons”.

As I pointed out, nobody was denying that Cllr Bryan had a close personal association with his wife, but that it was difficult to see how her well-being or financial position might be affected by her membership (unpaid) of the governing body of one of the affected schools.

The full exchange can be heard at http://www.pembrokeshire.public-i.tv/core/portal/webcast_interactive/163269 seven minutes into the debate.

Indeed, the personal interest of school governors arises by virtue of 10(2)(a)(viii) and (ix) and not 10(2)(c)(i).

10(2)(c)(i) covers the type situation where the member’s close personal associate has put in a planning application, or might be adversely affected by someone else’s planning application, etc.

I must admit that my interest in this matter was not purely academic.

The main issue on the agenda was the proposed closure of Ysgol Dewi Sant and the good folks of the St Davids area had bombarded members with emails pointing out that this was not a good idea.

Having read these emails, I was predisposed to agree with them and calculated that, if it came to the vote, it would be a close run thing.

As I said during the debate this was one of the most important and far-reaching decisions we had been faced with in my ten years on the council and I was anxious that nobody excluded themselves from the debate because of a misapprehension of the meaning of the Code.

Cllr Summons, who has never failed to back the party line, had tendered his apologies.

On the other hand, given the strong support of Stephen Crabb MP and Paul Davies AM for St Davids’ campaign, Cllr David Bryan (Tory) might have been expected to vote against the closure.

On the advice of the monitoring officer, Cllr Bryan opted to play safe and withdraw, so he and Cllr Summons cancelled each other out.

Another strange withdrawal was that of Cllr David Rees who represents Llanrhian – one of the wards most affected by the closure proposal.

After some hesitation, he managed to blurt out that he was declaring a prejudicial interest on the grounds that “I am a community councillor not appointed by Pembrokeshire County Council”.

As there are no community councillors appointed by PCC, and being a community councillor had no bearing on the matter, this was no reason whatsoever to withdraw .

It occurred to Old Grumpy that Cllr Rees was a bit flustered and had meant to say that he had been appointed to the governing bodies of one of the affected schools by someone other than PCC.

But, when I looked at his register of interests, all I found under public appointments was “Governor – Ysgol Gymunedol; Governor – Ysgol Ger Y Llan; and Welsh Books Council”.

As he is a PCC appointee to both Ysgol Gymunedol, and Ysgol Ger Y Llan there seems to be no justification, whatsoever, for Cllr Rees’ declaration of a prejudicial interest (see 12(2) above).

The conspiracy theorist in me wonders if Cllr Rees’ decision to take a powder was designed to avoid the difficult choice between voting against his constituents’ wishes and those of his Leader.

In the event, it didn’t matter because before the debate got fully underway, Cllr Jamie Adams executed the biggest climb-down since he threw Bryn Parry-Jones under a bus back in September last year, and tabled an amendment to consult on the basis that secondary education in St Davids would be retained.

Though, had the matter gone to a vote on the original proposals, and closure had gone through by a narrow margin, Cllr Rees might be facing some awkward questions from the people who elected him to represent their interests.

And it seems inconceivable that Cllr Rees would have decided to exclude himself from a debate of such major importance to his constituents without first seeking advice from the monitoring officer.

Incidentally, on taking office, members have to promise to abide by the Code of Conduct.

Watching the webcast it seems that quite a few have never even bothered to read it.