SOUTH WALES GUARDIAN OPINION
THE Wales Audit Office’s damning reports — and make no mistake, they are damning — into the activities of Carmarthenshire County Council make for grim reading.
The reports make clear that there were some major areas of concern regarding the authority’s decision-making processes and procedures when it came to approving the use of taxpayer money to fund chief executive Mark James’ libel counterclaim against blogger Jacqui Thompson and then, completely separately, to allow Mr James to withdraw from its standard staff pension scheme to find himself a better deal.
While the legal scrutinising of such decisions, and the processes by which the council’s executive board came to its conclusions, may well be beyond the average man in the street, what the reports, and the council’s responses to them, illustrate is an authority whose leadership views itself as a separate entity above and beyond its elected councillors, its staff and those it is meant to serve — the taxpayers.
“We are all in it together” has been Chancellor George Osbourne’s rallying cry to a nation battling the global economic crisis.
The leadership of Carmarthenshire County Council, it seems, thinks differently.
From the Jacqui Thompson libel case, to the now infamous Sainsbury’s press release of September 2012 when the council accused the MP and AM of deliberately sabotaging investment in the county, to the blacklisting of the South Wales Guardian for daring to raise its head above the parapet and on to Mr James’ pension arrangements, the upper echelons of Carmarthenshire County Council have time and again shown their belief that normal rules do not apply to them.
One of the most startling aspects of the Audit Office’s reports is the council’s response to issues raised.
Concerns regarding Mr James’ pension-plan “pay supplement” — deemed “contrary to the law” by the auditor — were met, according to the report, with responses such as: “It is not the traditional role of the auditor to enforce discrimination law” and then “It is not for the auditor to assert claims not made by any individual”.
Rather than address the lawfulness or otherwise of its decisions, Carmarthenshire County Council instead opted to go on the attack and tell the auditor — the public sector watchdog for Wales — to keep his nose out.
The auditor’s role is to ensure that the people of Wales know whether their money is being managed wisely, yet the council appears to have repeatedly told him that the spending of public funds in Carmarthenshire is “none of your business”.
Unfortunately for Mr James and the executive board, it is the auditor’s business — and it is our business too, because it is our money.
While the council is no doubt correct with its assertion that no extra public money was spent on the pension “pay supplement”, cash which would normally have been paid into Mr James’ Local Government Pension Scheme fund was simply handed to the council’s chief executive to do with as he saw fit.
Whether that money went into some high-yield investment scheme beyond the reach of us mere mortals or found a home in a completely legal offshore tax haven, we will no doubt never know.
One thing is undeniable, however.
The council’s executive board, either with or without Mr James’ direct encouragement, engineered a means by which he would not be liable for the same tax duties imposed on the rest of us.
While the county’s taxpayers faced, and continue to face, swingeing cuts to local authority services, the head of the authority, with the backing of the executive board, has been indulging in a tax avoidance scheme.
Thanks to the actions of the executive board, Mr James’ pension, on top of his £180,000 annual salary, supplemented by a £20,000 payment for his role of returning officer at every election held in Carmarthenshire, is not subject to the same rules and regulations applied to the rest of us.
His earnings exist in another place, beyond the aspirations of the rest of us.
While the politicians and lawyers can argue over the differences between “illegal”, “unlawful” and “contrary to the law”, all the rest of us really want to know is this: Where’s the money, Mr James?