20 December 2012
All is confusion
It's been a rather confused and confusing week.
Last Thursday, we had full council where my motion of no confidence in Cabinet member for education Cllr Huw George was on the agenda.
Everyone knew that two reports - by the Welsh Audit Office and schools' inspectorate Estyn - were due to be published on the following Monday and though it was common knowledge that the council's education services wasn't going to emerge smelling of roses, no one, except the Leader Cllr Jamie Adams, had actually read the reports.
What we did know was that head of education Martin Lloyd, who had seen the drafts, had announced his retirement citing the "challenging" nature of the reports as the reason for his decision.
I also have reason to believe that the contents of these reports had been discussed informally by Cllr Adams and members at the top of the IPPG tree.
However, when I challenged Cllr Adams to reveal whether he thought that there was anything in these reports that might affect the way members might vote, he retreated behind the shield of confidentiality.
Though confidentiality wasn't so strict as to prevent him from telling members that they contained evidence of "green shoots" of improvement.
In the event, Cllr George survived comfortably by 32 - 15 with nine abstentions.
The IPPG, apart from abstentions by Cllrs Myles Pepper and Reg Owens, voted solidly in his favour.
I should say that the word "survived" may not be quite accurate because I understand there was a school of thought within the higher reaches of the IPPG that even if the vote had gone against him he needn't resign.
Technically, this is correct because the power to appoint and disappoint Cabinet members rests entirely in the hands of the Leader, though I doubt if even he would be so arrogant as to ignore the verdict of full council.
But that is all academic because, as I say, my motion of no confidence went down with all hands.
On Friday evening all members received an email from the council with the two reports (embargoed to the following Monday morning) attached.
For anyone with the best interests of the county's children at heart they made very unpleasant reading.
After a couple of pages of scene-setting the Estyn report came swiftly to the point with "Overall judgement: Unsatisfactory" followed by "performance in primary schools does not compare well with that of similar schools in other authorities in Wales"
And, on the same page: "Capacity to improve: Unsatisfactory" followed by "corporate leaders and senior elected members have been too slow to recognise key issues in safeguarding and to change the culture in, and improve, education services."
So where are the "green shoots"?
Well, also under "capacity to improve", we read: "corporate leaders have recently begun to understand and engage more fully with the challenges facing education in Pembrokeshire and have taken appropriate action to initiate improvement".
The operative word here is "recently" because when members were given a presentation on these reports by Estyn on Monday morning it emerged that these "green shoots" had only sprouted in the late summer of 2012 - more than a year after the publication of the original critical reports by Estyn and CSSIW.
And, in my opinion, it is no coincidence that these corporate leaders' appreciation of the seriousness of the situation seems to have occurred at about the same time as the Welsh Government Minister Leighton Andrews, alarmed by any lack of meaningful progress, gave the Pembrokeshire Ministerial Board powers to direct the council to take whatever action the Board thought necessary.
Indeed, in his letter to the council, informing it of his decision to give the Board powers of direction, Mr Andrews says: there is ongoing failure (by the authority) to understand real concerns and criticisms; or alternatively, a deliberate decision to ignore them and overall, there is an ongoing failure to address the fundamental issues.
So, to sum up, we have two critical reports in late summer 2011, followed by a year of inaction, if not outright resistance, when nothing much happened and only now, almost 18 months after the alarm bells started to ring, are green shoots beginning to emerge.
And, most county councillors still have confidence in the Cabinet member who has been responsible for education since 2008.
So much for democratic accountability.
The upshot of all this is that both Estyn and WAO are recommending that the Minister puts the council's education service under special measures.
There are five actions that the Minister can take in respect of under performing education authorities and the fifth and most drastic is special measures.
In other words, it doesn't get any worse than this.
And all Cllr Jamie Adams can do is waffle on about "green shoots".
Could I remind the Leader that the last person to detect green shoots was Norman Lamont during the ERM crisis - and we all know what happened to him.
There has been a good deal of debate as to whether the result of the no confidence motion would have been different had there been a secret ballot rather than a recorded vote.
I have always favoured recorded votes because it is then quite clear to everyone, especially the electorate, how each member voted.
However, I am surprised by how many people believe that a secret ballot would have triggered an evaporation of support for Cllr Huw George.
For myself, I can't see why it would make any difference unless, of course, it is being suggested that some members of the IPPG voted for Cllr George out of party loyalty, or fear for their Special Responsibility Allowances (SRAs).
Really! How could anyone think that some of their fellow councillors would put their SRAs before the public interest?
What crackpot notion will these conspiracy theorists dream up next?
I now hear whispers that some members of the opposition are planning an extraordinary meeting of the council to debate these two reports.
There is even talk of another motion of no confidence in Cllr George.
I'm not sure how this all works out constitutionally, but, if it does come off, it will be interesting to see whether, having had the opportunity to read the reports, any members change sides.
It is interesting to read the account of Cllr Adams' contribution to the debate in this week's Western Telegraph.
He said he was responding to the motion of no confidence "with regret" which was understandable given that while it was Cllr Huw George who was in the firing line, his own judgement in keeping him in post despite having read the two critical reports was also in question.
He continued "We must draw a line under the previous council" [of which he was deputy leader] "I think members must realise there's been a huge movement in the the ethos of this council in terms of transparency and accountability"
I must admit, I hadn't noticed this change in ethos and all my motion was intended to achieve was the "accountability" of the cabinet member for the situation in the education department which as we now know is even more dire than anyone imagined.
After that he really got into his stride with: "I urge you not to allow this chamber to become a kangaroo court of punishment and retribution."
Now, how anybody can describe an open council meeting debating a constitutionally correct notice of motion a "kangaroo court" is beyond me.
According to wikipedia a kangaroo court is: "a mock court in which the principles of law and justice are disregarded or perverted".
I suppose it is stretching it a bit to call a council meeting a court, but, insofar as constitutional rules apply (or are supposed to apply) and decisions are made, it has at least some similarities.
That being the case, the nearest we have come to a kangaroo court during this affair was when the Cabinet debated my motion of no confidence on one of its own members.
That contravened the principle of Natural Justice that says no man should be a judge in his own court.
And that's without mentioning that Cllr George, himself, was present throughout.
The Cabinet proceedings, themselves, were hardly a model of judicial good practice with my three-page submission, which should have been the substance of the debate, being completely disregarded and the "trial" consisting of a few words by the Leader to the effect that he had "considerable confidence" in Cllr George followed by the vote.
Indeed, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the matter had been decided beforehand in contravention of the rule against prejudgement.
Then we can turn to the council meeting itself where Cllr George was allowed to speak after I, as mover of the motion, had responded to the debate.
The council's constitution is clear on this point "12.9(a) The mover of the motion has a right of reply at the end of the debate on the motion, immediately before it is put to the vote."
"End of the debate" and "immediately" leave no room for anyone else to speak, but, though I made a point of order, the Chairman allowed Cllr George to continue speaking.
As one who passionately believes that constitutional democracy under the rule of law is the only system of government that can reliably deliver justice for its citizens, to be accused of organising a kangaroo court by someone who leads a party that has total contempt for any rule that limits its own power (see below) is a bit hard to take.
Cllr George being allowed to speak contrary to the constitutional rules was bad enough, but what he had to say was downright offensive.
"I've never walked away and I've never been bullied into walking away and it ain't starting today." He bleated.
Now, if someone is being bullied, someone must be doing the bullying, and as I had put down the notice of motion that someone had to be me.
It is beyond belief that anyone can describe as bullying a notice of motion designed to hold to account the Cabinet member responsible for the fiasco that has led to a recommendation by both Estyn and WAO that the council's education service is put under special measures.
But as someone once said: there's little divides love of power and paranoia.
Rules are optional
Everybody has read in the papers, or heard on the news, about those parts of the world where the rule of law doesn't apply.
Putin's Russia, Zimbabwe under Mugabe and Afghanistan are all examples, where, despite their governments being elected, the ruling cliques have no regard for the law.
But you don't have to get on an aeroplane to witness this sort of thing - welcome to quiet, rural Pembrokeshire.
Over the past few months members of the county council have had a ringside seat as Cllr Tessa Hodgson and council Leader Jamie Adams have slugged it out over the appointment of members to outside organisations.
On my calculations there are 115 positions available on these bodies.
Some are local (14) e.g. Llangwm village community centre, Solva harbour authority, which are obviously reserved for the local member.
Then there are those which have to be filled by the relevant Cabinet member e.g. WLGA, Pembrokeshire Housing Association, of which there are 16, and finally there are bodies like the National Park Authority which are allocated in accordance with the political balance rules with the appointments being made by the leaders of the various political groups (18).
Taking these 48 from the total leaves 67 to be filled by the Leader of the council, Cllr Jamie Adams, under powers granted under the council's constitution.
It should be noted that this power is held by the Leader of the council and not by the Leader of the IPPG though looking at the appointments you wouldn't know it because 62 of the 67 (92%) are filled by members of Cllr Adams' party even though it only holds 53% of the seats on the council.
What Cllr Hodgson noticed was that the Nolan Principles, which underpin the Code of Conduct, require such appointments to be made on merit.
So she emailed Cllr Adams to ask how he had managed to make these appointments on merit, when, as far she was aware, he hadn't made any enquiries as to the qualifications, interests and experience of new members.
Cllr Adams replied: "At the start of this term I was required to appoint Members to a large number of outside body roles. On each occasion I gave full regard to their ability to undertake that function, including a desire to develop Members skills to provide opportunities of succession planning in the future.
"This, I hope gives you an insight into the process undertaken.
"To further your understanding I attach the list of outside body appointments . . . "
The reason I know about all this is that Cllr Adams kindly copied all members into the correspondence.
Whether this was in some new-found spirit of openness, or an attempt to demonstrate to the party faithful his masterful way of dealing with bolshie members of the opposition, I can't be sure, but if it was the latter he made a serious error.
If only he'd asked me, I could have warned him that the highly-educated womenfolk in the family don't take kindly to being patronised.
Back went Cllr Hodgson's reply - copied to all councillors, two can play at that game -"What would further my understanding is a straight answer. I fail to see how you can have considered any of the unaffiliated councillors . . . when you have no knowledge of their qualifications, skills or experience".
Cllr Adams was on the ropes, but he skilfully covered up hoping for the bell to save him with: "Im sorry that you disagree. I dont intend to enter into an email exchange that simply emphasises the fact that we hold different views on this matter."
Followed by the swift counterpunch "I am sorry to labour the point, but I do not think that agreeing to disagree is acceptable. Whilst we can both hold differing views, we cannot both be right."
Holding on for dear life, Cllr Adams responded: "I didnt think I needed to further clarify my last response which is contained below, however to emphasise this point please be assured we have different views on this matter as mentioned previously."
Cllr Hodgson moved in for the kill: "I do not need assurance that we have different views on this matter, that is without doubt. What I do need assurance on is that you, as leader, not just of Independent Plus, but of the whole Council, followed the Nolan principle of objectivity (In carrying out public business, including making public appointments, awarding contracts, or recommending individuals for rewards and benefits, holders of public office should make choices on merit.) when making appointments to outside bodies including the Police and Crime Panel. Without that assurance I can only conclude that, rather than appointments being made on merit, they are made by a system of patronage and or Buggins turn.
Now it wouldn't be right for me to express an opinion on the progress of this contest, but I have to say that impartial observers, include some very senior members of the IPPG, had Cllr Hodgson way ahead on points.
It was then that Cllr Hodgson's came across the minutes of the meeting of the council held on 11 December 2008; the previous occasion when this issue of appointments to outside bodies was debated.
At that meeting it was resolved that: "at the beginning of the term of the next Council, a list of outside bodies be circulated to all Members before appointments are made."
The term of the next council was the one that commenced after last May's election, so Cllr Hodgson put down a written question asking why the terms of this resolution had not been followed?
This was on the agenda for last Thursday's council meeting and Cllr Adams replied that two copies of the list of outside bodies had been left in the members' room after the election.
When Cllr Hodgson pointed out that this didn't amount to "circulation" Cllr Adams responded that all members had been circulated with a copy of the appointments.
He was out on his feet by now, but when the Cllr Hodgson rose to deliver the coup de grace by pointing out that this list was circulated after the appointments had been made and not, as the resolution required, before, the chairman intervened to bring the questioning to an end.
So, while she was denied a knockout, she did achieve the next best thing - referee stopped fight.
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