Wilful blindness

Last October, I put down a notice of motion calling for all correspondence between PCC, Wales European Funding Office (WEFO) and  Cathal McCosker regarding repayment of grant monies for properties in Pembroke Dock owned by Mr McCosker and his associated companies, to be made available for inspection by the council’s audit committee on a confidential basis.

The NoM was remitted to the audit committee where it was debated on 1 December 2014.

It was clear from the Chief Finance officer’s report to the committee that the council would rather this information was kept under wraps.

There was a claim that the police had written to the council saying that disclosing the information would contravene the Human Rights Act.

Not only was this bunkum, legally, but, even worse, it eventually turned out that the email sent to the council by the police said no such thing.

When I appeared in front of the committee, I quickly dismantled the Human Rights Act argument, whereupon the council’s lawyers changed tack and invoked sub judice – more correctly the Contempt of Court Acts.

This wouldn’t hold water either, but the bunch of IPPG stooges who make up the majority of the audit committee dutifully voted to recommend to full council that my NoM should not be adopted.

By the time the matter came back to full council on December 11, the council’s lawyers had armed themselves with an external barrister’s opinion with which they intended to stage an ambush.

However, when Cllr Mike Evans asked to see a copy it turned out that the opinion was based almost entirely on the rights and duties of the police to disclose information during a criminal investigation.

And, as I was asking for information held by the council, this had no relevance whatsoever.

What we didn’t know at the time was that, prior to the meeting, the council’s lawyers had fitted up Cllr Rob Summons with a copy of this legal opinion so that he could pull off a similar stunt to the one in which he was involved the previous December when he gave us the benefit of his superior knowledge of Freedom Of Information and Copyright law in support of the IPPG’s attempt to prevent members accessing other documents relating to the Pembroke Dock grants fiasco.

Unfortunately for Cllr Summons, he was denied his moment in the spotlight when Cllr Mike Evans forced the council’s lawyers to disclose the legal opinion ahead of schedule.

This episode is yet another example of the council’s complete contempt for the rule of law because, when it suits them – as in the case of the unlawful pension payments – barristers’ opinions are hidden from public view under the cloak of “legal professional privilege”.

When I complained about this, I was told that Cllr Summons had been provided with the document because membership of the audit committee was part of his Cabinet responsibilities.

Predictably, this wasn’t true either – his membership of the audit committee is completely unconnected to his Cabinet role.

However, perhaps remembering that their attempt to conceal information on the grants business at the previous Christmas council meeting had not been a roaring success, enough IPPG members broke ranks to see my NoM home.

But the council’s lawyers don’t give in easily and, even though full council in December had resolved to allow audit committee members to inspect the documents, a further counsel’s opinion was sought with a view to showing that disclosure might be somehow illegal.

The barrister’s conclusion was that: “In the circumstances of this case as I understand them, I advise that there is no entitlement on the part of the Councillors to have access to the paperwork retained by the police at this stage.”

Armed with that advice, the council’s legal eagles gave some thought to convening an extraordinary meeting of council for the sole purpose of countermanding the December resolution.

It seems that the stalking horse for this idea was to be that if this disclosure went ahead, it could hamper the council’s efforts to recover grant money from Mr McCosker.

As a letter sent to all members put it:

The Monitoring Officer and the Section 151 Officer have considered the addendum Advice from Counsel, on the possible impact on the Council being able to recover monies deemed to be repayable to the Council by the grant recipient [my emphasis].

However, as this “possible impact” caper had no legal basis, and mindful, perhaps, of the council’s already tattered reputation for secrecy, this plan was quietly shelved.

Having regard to the decision of Council and the advice from Counsel, it is not intended to issue any formal report for the consideration of Council for a review of its decision on the 11 December last.

As I have said before, following my conversation with WEFO last summer, I already know quite a bit about this correspondence on the repayment of grant monies.

From information that recently came my way, I can say that the council has had to repay over£300,000 to the grant-awarding body due to irregularities in McCosker projects, which is even more than it cost to send the chief executive quietly on his way.

And, as I also know that McCosker is only offering to pay back £180,000 (and that not all in one lump) there is, on the face of it, a considerable loss to Pembrokeshire’s taxpayers.

You might think that, in these austere times, the audit committee would be taking an interest in this financial reverse, but its meeting on February 5 came and went without any reference to the affair.

It would be interesting to know how many members of this committee have even bothered to exercise their right to inspect the documents.

Indeed, Old Grumpy hears a rumour that, that in line with the barrister’s advice, some of the IPPG members on the audit committee have forsworn their right to inspect, though it is not immediately obvious how seven members of the audit committee inspecting the documents on a confidential basis might hamper the police inquiry.

Of course, hiding their lack of interest behind the police inquiry is  rationalisation, pure and simple.
The real reason for putting on their blinkers is that if they were fully apprised what was going on they might feel compelled to do something about it.
How much more convenient to remain in la-la land.
However, it seems to me that members of the audit committee should put their duty to the people who elected them above their blind loyalty to the IPPG, and that duty requires them to find out exactly how much the council has had to repay WEFO; how much is recoverable from Mr McCosker; and over what timescale.
After all, this money was allocated for the improvement of Pembroke and Pembroke Dock town centres and, if the council has lost it through incompetence, or worse, the public have a right to expect those responsible to be held to account.

Interestingly, I have just been reading Louise Casey’s report on Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council’s (RMBC) wilful blindness when confronted with allegations of child sex abuse in the town. This finding caught my attention:

“Members and officers seemed content to be told that matters of CSE [child sexual exploitation] were confidential and there could be no details divulged due to police operations. Inspectors found it very surprising that these matters were not questioned. No one seemed even curious enough to ask for an update, let alone ask why, with all these police operations, convictions were not being secured.”

That sounds remarkably similar to what is going on in PCC over the inspection of these documents.

And this next bit could have been written with Pembrokeshire County Council in mind:

Cover up in RMBC needs to be looked at within the culture of a Council that, as has already been described, does not welcome challenge and chooses instead to ‘shoot the messenger’ rather than learn from mistakes that have been made. Inspectors found that RMBC, when faced with information about wrong doing or poor practice often seeks to stamp on that information and silence those who bring forward their concerns. Inspectors found that the Council’s concern with its reputation leads it to cover up information which it would prefer not to be in the public domain. [my bold]

Indeed, the highlighted sentence bears a striking resemblance to: “Generally cases are only discussed when they may have a high media profile and cause reputational damage. This lack of transparency raises questions as to whether the protection of the child is always given priority over the reputation of the authority,” which is lifted straight from the scathing 2011 CSSIW report into serial deficiencies in PCC’s child safeguarding practices.

Louise Casey’s full report can be read here. The later sections on the culture inside RMBC are particularly illuminating – especially the criticism of elected members for allowing staff to leave with large settlement payments rather than following through with disciplinary proceedings.

Sound familiar?

And, as I will show in a future post on the Mik Smith affair, despite all the extravagant claims about turning over a new leaf, the cover-up culture inside the Kremlin is still going strong.

Old habits die hard!