October 3 2013

All shall have prizes

Deputy council leader Cllr Huw George was interviewed by Radio Wales immediately after Monday's stormy meeting of the corporate governance committee and thanks to that other website, which has provided a link to the recording, I am able to bring you his take on the pensions' affair.
Cllr George opined:
"What I understand is the individual by coming to this system. What happens is that the individual pays that tax burden, today.
That individual takes the risk because when they retire the tax burden has been paid.
However, should something happen to that individual - they pass away before that tax burden, er, pension fund comes into fruition - the tax man has had his money but the individual will have lost out.
It's a risk the individual takes, but the tax man gains in each and every way.
That's the way I understand it."

Contrast that with the minutes of the now famous meeting of PCC's senior staff committee in September 2011 which record: The Committee considered a report regarding the effects upon pension contribution arrangements of recent changes in taxation provisions affecting higher earners and which had imposed limitations and penalties on the levels of annual contributions and the taking of benefits. As a consequence, at certain points in their careers, staying as active contributing members of the pension scheme would create substantial tax liability for individuals (including on promotion), thereby reducing incentives for recruitment.
In order to aid recruitment and retention, it was suggested that individuals in this position should be given the option of receiving the equivalent of the employer’s contribution so that they make their own alternative arrangements for saving for retirement.
That the option set out above be made available to senior staff on the basis that no additional cost accrues to the Council.
So, a scheme has been devised whereby high earners will be allowed to avoid a "substantial tax liability" while "the tax man gains in each and every way".
If Cllr George can stand this up, the Nobel Prize for economics beckons.
More likely, to my mind, is that the Rev Huw has taken on the mantle of the White Queen, who, as fans of Lewis Carroll will recall, could "believe six impossible things before breakfast".

"I can't believe that!" said Alice.
"Can't you?" the queen said in a pitying tone. "Try again, draw a long breath, and shut your eyes."
Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said. "One can't believe impossible things."
"I dare say you haven't had much practice," said the queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

Huw Tube

While we're on the subject of Cllr Rev Huw George, a reader tells me that his famous (fatuous? Ed.) video has reappeared on You Tube.
If this gloomy weather is getting you down, you can cheer yourself up by clicking here
I understand the video was originally removed because the musical accompaniment (Its a wonderful world and Rocking all over the world) was in breach of copyright law.
The music had now been removed.
However, the entertainment value is not much diminished as Cllr George tours his ward under the slogan "Positive politics brings positive results" showing off the new tarmac his efforts have brought to the area.
Strangely, when I raised the issue of the £300,000-worth of new road surfacing that my inspection of the council's accounts revealed had been laid in his ward in the year running up to the 2012 election, the Leader Cllr Jamie Adams told me that it was all down to "routine maintenance".
That being the case, all this talk of positive politics and positive results is rather disingenuous..
However what interested me most of all was the appearance in the second half of the film of a photograph of Cllr George - the then Cabinet member for education - and local schoolchildren which had been taken for use in a council press release.
I recently had cause to write about this issue following the receipt of advice from the Welsh Local Government Association on councillors' use of social media, particularly: "NEVER [WLGA's emphasis] take photos of children without the express permission of their parents based on an understanding of what you intend to use the picture for."(see Sound advice)
The question is: did the parents of these children give their express permission for the use of this photograph in Cllr George's election video?
I should add that I always try to abide by Mark Twain's rule that you should never ask a question unless you already know the answer.

Interesting times

The senior staff committee of September 2011, which is at the heart of the controversy over the pension arrangements for PCC's highest paid officers, raises some interesting questions about the rights of the public to attend council meetings.
The legislation is contained in the Local Authorities (Access to Information) Act which has now been incorporated into the Local Government Act 1972 (Section 100).
This gives the public the general right to attend meetings of "principal authorities" and their committees.
There are two exceptions to the rule: firstly when "confidential information" - defined as information provided by central government on condition of confidentiality - would be disclosed, when the public must (my emphasis) be excluded.
Then there is "exempt information" - the categories of which are defined in Schedule 12A of the Act - when the council/committee may (my emphasis) resolve to exclude the public.
The resolution must include a description "in terms of Schedule 12 A" of the nature of the business to be discussed and a further complication introduced in 2006 is that the "proper officer" must make a declaration that the public interest in withholding the information outweighs the public interest in disclosure.
To the best of my knowledge, there has not been a single instance where the public interest test led to the scales coming down in favour of more openness.
In any case, the meeting must open in public and remain in public session while such matters as apologies, declarations of interest and minutes of the previous meeting are dealt with.
It is only after the council/committee has voted to exclude the public that the meeting can continue in secret.
In the case of the meeting of senior staff committee in September 2011 where these controversial pension arrangements were approved, the meeting was held in the chief executive's office.
As Cllr Paul Miller told Monday's corporate governance committee, it is arguable whether a meeting held at a venue that can only be accessed with a security pass can be said to be open to the public as required by the law.
It is interesting to note that, most unusually, the minutes of the meeting identify the venue only as "County Hall" whereas the usual practice is to give the exact location e.g Committee Room 2 County Hall.
When it came to the justification for excluding the public the resolution specified "Paragraph 12 of Schedule 12A".
Paragraph 12 refers to "Information relating to a particular employee ... or particular office holder".
though there is no mention of any particular employee or office holder in either the report to the committee or the minutes.
So there must be serious doubts as to whether the council had the legal right to exclude the public.
In any case, it is arguable that, even if the business to be transacted did fall within the definition contained in paragraph 12, it was in the public interest that the information should be disclosed.
This is especially so as the wording in the published minutes is identical to that in the secret report presented to the committee.
However, the documents are not absolutely identical because the secret report was headed by the names of its co-authors: the director of finance and head of human resources.
The standard practice is for the minutes to record that the committee received a report from [name(s) of author(s)] while in this case the names of the authors was omitted.
It may be significant that both the authors of the report were potential beneficiaries of the scheme.
It is also worthy of note that the minutes do not record that anyone declared an interest in the business before the committee, though both the chief executive and head of human resources were present.
This led to a lively discussion at Monday's meeting of the corporate governance committee where the council's line, as I understood it, was that S117 of the Local Government Act 1972 excused council officers of any obligation to declare their interests in these circumstances.
I'm not sure I agree with this analysis.
As I understand it, S117 is concerned with those occasions when an officer is contracting with the council as a third party e.g. when they have business interests outside their council duties and that business has a contract with the council. What S117 says is that, if the officer's involvement is on the face of the contract, the interest is clear to all concerned and there is no need to declare it.
However, if the officer's interest is not clear, because, for instance, the contract is with a company in which they are shareholders, they must declare this concealed interest.
My confidence in this interpretation is reinforced by the what is contained in the council's statement of accounts under the heading "Related Parties"
"11.2 Officers
Under the Employees’ Code of Conduct, officers are required to declare potential conflicts of interest arising from employment arrangements together with gifts or hospitality and offers thereof and, under Section 117 1972 Local Government Act, contractual arrangements where there is a conflict of interest. Most professional bodies also have codes of professional conduct to which members of those bodies are expected to adhere."
That seems to draw a clear distinction between interests "arising from employment arrangements" and those caught by S117.
The only remaining doubt is whether these pension payments amount to "employment arrangements", but, as the council's audit committee was recently told that these pension arrangements had been written into senior officers' contracts of employment, common sense would seem to dictate that they are.
My earlier thoughts on the corporate governence committee meeting can be found at Stop Press.

It couldn't happen here!

This morning's Today Programme carried a report on the Greek government's crackdown on the fascist party Golden Dawn which has been indicted as a criminal gang.
One former member told how they had resigned in disgust after attending a meeting where boasts were made that, for few hundred Euros, it could be arranged for opponents and hostile journalists to have their arms and legs broken.
Thank goodness that sort of thing couldn't happen here?

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