11 January 2005


With prejudice


Last Tuesday, when I compared Pembrokeshire County Council to a banana republic, I was not to know that an Ombudsman's report to be published the following day would reach a broadly similar conclusion.
This report, on the Ombudsman's investigation into the Social Services Department's treatment of Mrs Price (not her real name) and her family, is available (free) from County Hall and is required reading for anyone who wants to really understand what passes for democratic government here in Pembrokeshire
Reading this report, it is hard to believe that it is less than a month since the Chief Executive - a "trained lawyer" - chose to lecture me on due process, fair play and objectivity during a meeting of the county council (see On the carpet).
When Mr Parry-Jones has digested the Ombudsman's findings he might conclude that he would be better employed dispensing his wisdom to the senior staff in his own social services department.
And not only social services, because one of the council's "trained lawyers" also comes in for some stick over an attempt to bully Mrs Price into not disclosing her correspondence with the council to the Ombudsman, and others.
The correspondence relates to negotiations between Mrs Price and the council aimed at reaching a settlement over her complaint; upheld by an independent investigator, into the council's conduct.
As part of these negotiations the council was offering some sort of financial compensation.
It was Mrs Price's practice to forward copies of the council's letterto both the Ombidsman and her MP, Jackie Lawrence.
On 15 December 2003, Officer L - a council solicitor - wrote to Mrs Price asking her to explain why she was sending copies of his correspondence to the Ombudsman "when my letter are specifically marked without prejudice".
According to the Ombudsman's report: "The council took exception to this as some of the correspondence had concerned possible payment as a remedy for the council's shortcomings identified by the complaints process and the council wished to avoid the impression that it was prepared to make available compensation."
And, in a further letter dated 24 December 2003, Officer L asked Mrs Price "to desist from forwarding any further correspondence to third parties, without the council's consent."
Clearly, this attempt to conceal the council's willingness to offer financial compensation was not aimed at Mrs Price.
After all, the letters setting out the council's negotiating position had been sent to her.
No, the intention was to conceal from both the Ombudsman, and her MP, the council's acknowledgement of liability.
The Ombudsman was not impressed.
With respect to Officer L's letter of 15 December 2003 he writes in his conclusions: "I consider this highly inappropriate: any complainant is entitled to send me a copy of any correspondence whatsoever with the council."
Not only "highly inappropriate", I would suggest, but a complete misrepresentation of the rules regarding "without prejudice".
As I understand it, the only effect of the words "without prejudice" is that such correspondence cannot be used in any subsequent legal proceedings.
In the words of the Law Reform Committee: "Potential litigants may be inhibited from embarking on negotiations for a settlement which normally calls for mutual concessions on each side unless they can be assured [by the 'without prejudice' rules] that what they say or offer in the course of negotiations will not be used against them in subsequent litigation if the negotiations fail."
For instance, an employer faced with a claim for wrongful dismissal might decide it will be cheaper to pay the employee compensation rather than fight the case at a tribunal.
So long as the words "without prejudice" are included in any letter offering compensation, the employee will be unable to to use that letter in court as evidence of an admission of wrongdoing by the employer.
Information protected by 'without prejudice' is, like advice given by a lawyer to his client, classed as 'privileged'.
I would have thought the council's "highly inappropriate" attempt to interfere with the free exchange of information between an MP and her constituent was a breach of an even more important privilege - the Parliamentary variety.


In denial


There were hopes that Cllr John Davies' elevation to Leader of the county council might herald the end of the culture of secrecy and spin that held sway during the reign of his predecessor, Maurice Hughes.
Indeed, following his election as Leader at the AGM in July last year, Cllr Davies professed his belief in "open, honest, accountable local government" and pledged that the council's business would be conducted in accordance with "the highest ethical standards".
Unfortunately that has turned out to be nothing but windy rhetoric as witnessed by the Leader feeble response to the Ombudsman's damning report into the way the authority treated the family of the woman referred to in the report as "Mrs Price".
Old Grumpy has read many Ombudsman's reports but never have I come across anything so unremittingly savage as this.
The local government watchdog finds no fewer than 15 cases of maladministration in a report littered with words such as injustice, incompetence, grossly insensitive, lamentable, unfair, clumsy and ham fisted.
He concludes his report: " I find that there was repeated, prolonged and serious maladministration on the part of the council in its dealings with Mrs Price over the registration of her children and that this maladministration caused her, and them, injustice."
The Ombudsman recommends that the council should write to Mrs Price making a full apology, and acknowledging that her children should never have been placed on the at risk register in the first place.
In addition, he recommends that the council should pay Mrs Price £5,000 in compensation.
Considering what Mrs Price and her family have been put through, five-thousand pounds may not seem a lot of money but, in the context of Ombudsman's reports, which usually suggest a payment to cover little more than the complainant's postage and telephone costs, it is a massive sum.
And how does Cllr Davies respond to this litany.
Well, according to the Mercury, he says that the council accepts the report.
However, that is quickly followed by weasel words that could easily have come from Maurice Hughes, or whoever used to write his press releases.
"Although we do have some reservations, it is clear that there were errors in procedure that should never have occurred" Cllr Davies tells the newspaper.
"It must be remembered that the county council's responsibility in cases such as this is always to the children. It appears that one of the principal mistakes in this matter has been one of over-caution.
"In all such cases there are difficult decisions to be made and these are usually matters of judgment"
he claims.
This is account of events will not bear even the most cursory scrutiny.
The "errors in procedure" referred to by the Leader and described by the Ombudsman as "seriously procedurally flawed" in that the Chairman of the Child Protection Conference failed to distinguish between "fact, allegation and opinion".
And an internal inquiry into Mrs Price's initial complaint, which - surprise, surprise - found "no procedural or professional fault", was, the Ombudsman records: based on an investigation which was "insufficiently thorough and contained factual inaccuracies".
In fact, the thread running through the whole of this report is a wanton disregard for the rule of law, Natural Justice, and Mrs Price's basic human right to have the issues considered fairly
And how was the council discharging its responsibilities to the children by placing them on the at risk register when there was no evidence to support such a decision and when registration caused them, in the Ombudsman's words: "distress, humiliation and embarrassment"?
And why, after the children had been placed on the register - an action described by an independent investigator as "totally inappropriate" - did the social services department not provide the support and supervision that such registration warranted?
In fact, two of the findings of maladministration specifically highlight the council's failure to carry out its responsibilities to the children.
As the Ombudsman records at paragraph 232: "The social worker Officer C failed to contact Mrs Price or her children for ten weeks after the Initial Child Protection Conference [when they were placed on the at-risk register] and when he did it was to request her presence at a meeting three days later. The delay of ten weeks was, in my view, maladministration."
And at paragraph 243: "During the time they were on the register of children at risk, Mrs Price's children could have expected a measure of protective vigilance from Social Services. This was not forthcoming: for example, on at least one occasion [my emphasis] an entire month elapsed (from 17 January to February 18 2003) between Social Services receiving notification of a head injury to one of the children and social workers seeking contact with the child, and a further delay of 19 days before an interview with the child was scheduled."
So much for "over-caution" with regard to looking after the interests of the children.
The Ombudsman says that council's approach to making redress to Mrs Price, after a previous independent investigation had found in her favour, was "grudging and ineffectual".
Judging by the Leader's mealy-mouthed response to this latest damning report, the council, in the words of Tallyrand, seems to have "Learned nothing and forgotten nothing."



Old Grumpy is usually up in time to listen to Radio 4's 'Farming Today' - the antidote to classical economic theory.
The programme is very keen on organic food, farmer's markets and the like, and frequently broadcasts statements like "sales of organic produce shot up by 10% last year" without bothering to mention that this latest increase takes the organic sector's market share from 1% to 1.1%.
That said, I always find it worthwhile listening, even if only to get my blood pressure up and dispel the early morning lethargy..
This morning's show provided an excellent laugh with the news that a Dutch company had discovered a money-spinning strain of potatoes called 'Adora' with 30% less carbohydrate that normal varieties.
As potatoes are almost entirely made up of carbohydrate, it is difficult to see where the advantage lies in paying for 10 lbs of potatoes and only getting seven.
However, such is the public's desire to lose weight that a company in America (where else?) is marketing these new spuds under the brand name 'Sun Lite".
Fat profits are on the menu.

Brothers at war

As Dr Johnson said, "Nothing concentrates a man's mind like the sight of the gallows."
And, it seems, Labour MPs, particularly those who find their place on the gravy train threatened by small majorities, are getting fed up with the Blair-Brown wars.
So fed up that the worm finally turned at last night's meeting of the Parliamentary party where several members told the Prime Minister and his Chancellor that enough is enough.
This latest bout of nerves has been brought on by the serialisation in the Sunday Telegraph of a book by the paper's City editor Robert Peston.
Peston makes three main charges:

1. That in November 2003, Mr Prescott (of Relate?) hosted a dinner for the two protagonists at his official residence in Admiralty Arch.
During that dinner Mr Blair promised he would hand over to Brown before the next election.

2. Enemies of Brown, led by John Reed and Tessa Jowell, got wind of this and persuaded Blair to change his mind.

3. When Brown heard that he was not going to get the top job he told Blair "I will never again believe anything you tell me" or words to that effect.

The party line is that is has all been got up by media types in the Westminster Village with a view to increasing the sales of books/newspapers.
This was the line taken by John Prescott when interviewed on the Today programme, though, when asked to confirm or deny Peston's account of the dinner conversation he came over all coy.
Similarly, when, at the meeting of the Parliamentary party, Mr Brown was challenged to deny that he had expressed mistrust in the Prime Minister, he maintained a stony silence.
Of course, the easy way to quash these "rumours" would be to issue an unambiguous denial.
But that would risk the great sin of spin - telling a demonstrable lie.
Now, in order to convince us to vote for "a united party", we are to be treated to the spectacle of four months of false bonhomie between now and the election.
The problem is; so totally useless are the Tories, that they will probably pull it off with something to spare.
We should also remember that these internal Labour party feuds are nothing new.
There is the wonderful story of someone saying to Herbert Morrison that the volatile Aneurin Bevan was his own worst enemy.
"Not while I'm alive, he ain't", Morrison growled.

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