Pembrokeshire County Council leader responds to special Western Telegraph P1 comment
6:00pm Friday 28th February 2014 in County News
Last week, the Western Telegraph ran a special front page comment about the scenes at Pembrokeshire County Council when a bid to have chief executive Bryn Parry-Jones suspended failed.
The comment was run under the headline 'A mockery of democracy'.
It can be read in full by clicking here.
Council leader Jamie Adams requested a right of reply, which is printed below in full:
"Last Wednesday, the Western Telegraph ran a front page ‘special comment’ prepared by News Editor, Lee Day. I requested a right to reply to his piece and am grateful to the Western Telegraph for agreeing to its publication.
"Two weeks ago, the Council met to consider the Public Interest Report concerning the pension arrangements of senior staff. During the meeting, I set out the background to the decision taken in September 2011. This background is critical; it is of significant concern to me that a number of commentators still seem to be ignoring the facts, choosing instead to hide behind salacious headlines.
"The pension decision – which affected all senior staff of the Council, not just the Chief Executive – was prompted by a letter from the Manager of the Dyfed Pension Fund concerning changes to local government pension arrangements. As a responsible employer, and with the implications of the changes on our ability to retain and recruit senior staff in mind, the cross-party Senior Staff Committee addressed the issue. We voted, unanimously, to allow senior staff to opt to receive the employer’s pension contribution directly (to be taxed as salary in the normal way) instead of the tax-free contributions which they would have received previously.
"Some two years after this decision was taken, Wales Audit Office raised concerns about its lawfulness. The Auditor’s concerns were based on his belief that there were a number of procedural flaws in the process followed by the Council. One of the suggested flaws was the presence of the Chief Executive and Head of Human Resources when the original decision was taken. Our legal advice on this matter is quite clear; the presence of the officers concerned was in accordance with the Local Government Act 1972. I and the four other current Members of the Council who took that decision have all previously written to the Auditor confirming that neither officer took any part in this discussion. At our Council Meeting two weeks ago, the Auditor confirmed that the difference in legal opinion between his adviser and the Council’s QC was perfectly acceptable. Consequently, I moved a motion, which the Council approved, that the Auditor’s recommendations were accepted. No Councillors voted against my proposal.
"The second issue discussed at our Council meeting was a motion to take disciplinary action against the Chief Executive. As many readers will be aware, a number of Councillors had previously made comments to the press concerning the Chief Executive’s position. Quite properly, Councillors were advised to consider whether or not these statements could be interpreted as pre-determined bias in the matter they were now being asked to consider (pre-determination is prohibited under the Councillors’ Code of Conduct). A number of Councillors reflected on this advice and opted to leave the Council Chamber. It was their choice and theirs alone; nobody was instructed to leave or prevented from speaking.
"Last week’s commentary on this issue by Mr Day was particularly misleading. Providing correct advice to Councillors does not undermine democracy. I find myself in the novel position of having to agree with Cllr Mike Stoddart who, also in last week’s Western Telegraph, was quoted as follows: “Having been advised by a leading QC that we should declare an interest and leave the meeting, those of us who had expressed an opinion were in a difficult position. Not only were we risking breaching the Code of Conduct, but there was also the possibility that any decision taken would be open to legal challenge because of our presence. Had that come about there could have been a claim for compensation that might have cost the taxpayer an awful lot of money”.
"Cllr Stoddart is quite right. The truth of the matter is that all Councillors are trained in the rules concerning pre-determination and bias. Members on all sides of the Chamber should have known better than to respond to the press in such unequivocal terms. What saddens me most, however, is the fact that when a number of Members were approached, the biased and personal nature of their antipathy towards a senior member of staff was such that they simply couldn’t help themselves.
"As for the manner in which some of my colleagues have sought to sensationalise the use of an envelope to seek guidance from and provide information to the Council’s legal adviser, I will leave readers to draw their own conclusions. This was not some underhand tactic. Suffice it to say that the last time I sent a letter to one of my constituents, I have to admit it was in an envelope."