PEMBROKESHIRE County Council has today controversially voted to sign off last year’s accounts in a lively meeting of the Corporate Governance Committee.
Seven members to six voted in favour of a motion by leader Cllr Jamie Adams that the Council were able to ratify the financial statements despite legal concerns by the Welsh Audit Office. The Council and WAO are currently locked in a “legal dispute” over the legality of pension arrangements which help senior members of council staff avoid paying tax on their pensions.
During a heated discussion at County Hall the representative from the Welsh Audit Office said his organisation was not in a position to sign off the accounts. The Welsh Audit Office will be holding a meeting on Thursday to discuss the legal position, following which they may qualify the authority’s accounts, issue a statement in the public interest, or possibly commence legal action.
Plaid Cymru group leader Cllr Michael Williams said in a response to a statement by Cllr Adams: “Things aren’t as rosy as they should be, I hear your words but I accept them with a pinch of salt”.
Councillors were asked to vote in favour of signing off the accounts with a caveat over the controversial element, something which Cllr Michael Williams was unable to support, telling the meeting: “We have been asked to park the issue over pensions at the side, and sign off the accounts anyway. I’m uncomfortable with this. We shouldn’t be able to separate something potentially illegal from the rest of the accounts.”
Cllr Paul Miller said after the Leader explained how the pension plan was introduced: “You must be aware of the ridiculousness of the story you have cooked up in a venue which is not open to the public, after no legal advice had been given, that members of the Senior Staff Committee without intervention from officers read half an A4 page report and voted in favour of this tax scheme.”
Cllr Adams replied: “You have painted a dark picture Cllr Miller, if any public had turned up they would have been shown to the chief executive’s office. This is an office open to the public.”
Disputing that the chief executive’s office was accessible and open to the public, Cllr Jacob Williams, who held up his security key-card, said: “You have to use an electronic pass to open locked security doors to get as far as the chief executive’s room. It’s simply not true that this is an office open to the members of the public.”
Cllr Mike Stoddart, who earlier in the meeting commented on the council’s transparency by way of a reference to “political democracies such as Russia or Zimbabwe,” told members of the committee that he thought that when the Senior Staff Committee went into private session in 2011 this also was potentially unlawful. Under section 100 of the Local Government Act, the Committee can go into private session, but there is a public interest test which was introduced in 2006.
‘’I wonder whether the public interest was considered in this case. I don’t think that in this instance the law in excluding the public was applied correctly,’’ he added.
Cllr Stoddart also questioned if the Chief Executive, Bryn-Parry Jones, should have declared an interest during the controversial meeting.
“If a member had failed to declare an interest and acted in this way, they would probably be lead of in handcuffs,” he said.
Cllr Jacob Williams said: “The legal advisor has read out to us a Local Government Act section 117 guidance note which says interests like this don’t need to be declared by an employee if the matter under discussion relates solely to that single employee, as the interest will be automatically presumed declared. This seems wrong to me, but despite that, this was not a situation where the matter related only to the chief executive or even to named employees, it was a whole change of policy which affected all senior staff members of the council, so I disagree entirely that no interest needed to be declared.”
In reply, the council’s legal advisor, Mr Huw Miller, stood by his own interpretation of the law saying the Chief Executive did not need to declare an interest in the pension policy change.
All the members of the Independent Plus Political Group voted to adopt the accounts, and all other councillors not in the IPPG voted against.