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Council’s war with auditors

top qcCounty Hall deploys top QC in legal battle over Bryn’s ‘tax-dodge’

PEMBROKESHIRE County Council has instructed top barrister Tim Kerr QC of 11 King’s Bench Walk, London to fight its corner against the WAO investigation into the decision to allow controversial CEO Bryn Parry Jones to avoid tax on his personal pension.

Mr Kerr is described on his chambers website as being “frequently engaged by central and local government entities as well as private
sector clients”. The Herald understands that Mr Kerr is also overseeing a probe at Lancashire County Council into alleged breaches of the local government tendering process.

The engagement of an expensive leading barrister by the Council to support a tax break for highly paid staff at a time when it is contemplating raising leisure charges and closing facilities around the County is sure to generate more controversy. Council Leader, Jamie Adams, claimed that the decision to give Bryn Parry Jones a tax break would not cost Pembrokeshire an extra penny.

The leader of neighbouring Carmarthenshire Council, Kevin Madge, has already accepted that the fall-out of the same policy has been
to damage that Council’s reputation. Carmarthenshire County Council has jointly instructed lawyers with Pembrokeshire to resist the WAO.

The Pembrokeshire Herald can reveal that the WAO has already sent its ‘consideration documents’ to Pembrokeshire County Council. It is understood that those who were asked to comment on the documents were CEO Bryn Parry Jones, Head of Finance Mark Lewis and the members of the committee who passed the tax dodge policy in 2011, including current Council leader Jamie Adams and former Council leader John Davies, who Cllr Adams has claimed gave the committee members advice on the complex issue.

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Herald readers will recall that the Council only took independent legal advice AFTER the Wales Audit Office raised concerns about the decision to give senior staff a large tax break on their pensions.

The Auditor General for Wales said recently:

“There are those who would argue that asking and answering the difficult questions can safely be left to officials. I commend the professionalism of our public servants in Wales, but, I would warn, “Beware the summary produced by your own staff”. I want to stress that scrutiny must not be undertaken through a tick-box approach. Strict adherence merely to the letter of the standing order is not the objective, nor will citizens accept mere compliance as an excuse for profligate behaviours.”

Those who received the documents were given the opportunity to reply to them and have now done so.

The Pembrokeshire Herald can reveal that Carmarthenshire County Council’s Executive Board met in secret session on Wednesday, December 4, to consider its next steps. Despite a meeting of Pembrokeshire County Council’s Cabinet taking place on Monday, December 2, no mention was made at the meeting of the WAO investigation.

The Wales Audit Office told The Pembrokeshire Herald:

““We can confirm that both Councils have provided their detailed responses to the Auditor’s consideration documents. He is now considering them and whether they will affect a decision to issue a report in the public interest. While there is no time scale on his decision, he hopes to conclude matters before Christmas.”

The Pembrokeshire Herald contacted Pembrokeshire County Council and asked the following questions in relation to the ‘consideration documents’ to which officers and members were due to respond:

• Please confirm whether responses have been made; if made, by whom they have been made and when they were made.
• Please confirm whether external Counsel or solicitors advised any of those responding either collectively or individually.
• Please provide us with a statement for publication regarding the dispute with the WAO regarding senior staff remuneration and when the matter is to be discussed by Council members.
• Please confirm what contribution – if any – is being made by the Council toward the fees of Mr Tim Kerr QC of 11 King’s Bench Walk Chambers.

Replying, a County Council spokesperson told The Herald:

“We can confirm that responses to the Wales Audit Office (WAO) ‘consideration document’ have been sent to the WAO.

“However, there are questions from Elected Members on this matter which are due to be asked at next week’s meeting of full Council. Responses will be given at that time.”