UPDATED: Pembrokeshire County Council accounts signed off by just one vote as pension payments row escalates
12:19pm Monday 30th September 2013 in News
Pembrokeshire County Council’s accounts for 2012/13 were approved by just one vote at a corporate governance committee meeting this morning (Monday), amid ongoing concerns about controversial pension payments to senior officers.
At an audit committee last week, members were told there was a “difference of opinion” between the council and the Wales Audit Office (WAO) over a decision to allow senior staff to receive the equivalent of the employer’s pension contribution if they opted out of the local government pension scheme.
Payments were made and disclosed in this year’s financial statements for the first time, with chief executive Bryn Parry-Jones and one head of service being the only two officers to have opted out of the local government pension scheme.
The WAO said it was unable to finalise the council’s audit. Both parties are now seeking legal advice.
The move was approved by seven votes to six at Monday’s meeting, with seven Independent Plus Group members voting in favour and six opposition members voting against.
Carmarthenshire County Council is in the same position as Pembrokeshire and the two authorities are seeking joint legal advice.
Council leader Cllr Jamie Adams said the issue could be “parked” and it did not “impinge” on the council’s ability to sign off the accounts.
But serious concerns and questions were raised by some members, including whether the legal issue concerned decision making or the decision itself.
It emerged the council had sought legal advice in August this year, but that advice was currently unavailable to members.
Head of legal and committee services Huw Miller said: “The issue before members today is whether to approve the accounts, having parked that issue to one side.”
Concerns were also raised about officers with a direct interest in the agenda item, including chief executive Bryn Parry-Jones - being present when the decision was made at the initial meeting, held in Mr Parry-Jones' office.
But Mr Miller said officers were not under any obligation to declare an interest because members were aware of any interests under the officer’s employment contract.
In response to questions from Labour leader Cllr Paul Miller, Cllr Adams, who was deputy leader at the time, said advice was received from central government for employers and employees to renegotiate contracts.
He said the decision was taken to aid the recruitment and retention of senior staff, and on the basis that there was no extra cost to the council.
There was no intervention from any of the officers, the meeting was held in an appropriate location and the six members had delegated authority to approve the decision, he said.
But Cllr Miller said: “You must understand the ridiculousness of this situation. Members of the senior committee took the decision in a venue where public accessibility is questionable, to say the least, without legal opinion and in the presence of senior officers with a direct interest in the scheme, which is now potentially illegal.
“Is that a fair reflection of the situation?” Cllr Miller added.
Cllr Adams said it was not and Cllr Miller had painted a “rather dark picture”.
He added that the meeting was open to the public until a decision had been made to go into private session.
Questions were raised about that decision and why the opportunity was not available to all staff.
Cllr Mike Stoddart said the matter was one of policy and he suggested the public were unlawfully excluded from the meeting.
“This is a very small amount of money but a rather large principle is involved,” he added.
Mr Miller said the decision was due to the discussion concerning a small number of staff who were easily identifiable.
Questions over tax benefits were dismissed by director of leisure and finance Mark Lewis, who said that anybody opting out of the pension scheme would have been “significantly worse off in that year”.
But he said “offsets were possible” in the long term.
Speaking about the decision to sign off the accounts, Cllr Michael Williams said: “We should not be able to support something which is potentially illegal and an integral part of the accounts.”
Cllr Vivien Stoddart said she was “staggered” at the conduct of the senior committee.
Members who voted in favour of signing off the accounts included Councillors Peter Morgan, Thomas Richards, Jamie Adams, Huw George, Brian Hall, David James and Keith Lewis.
Those voting against included Councillors Jacob Williams, Vivien Stoddart, Mike Stoddart, David Howlett, Michael Williams and Paul Miller.
The WAO is to meet with its lawyers this Thursday.
* The Western Telegraph has learned that a call has gone in for an extraordinary council meeting to be held to discuss the issue.
The request, made by labour leader Paul Miller, calls for:
- The original decision to allow the pension payments to be made to be rescinded;
- The Welsh Government to appoint an independent panel to review the legality of the decision and the circumstances surrounding the debate and decision making process;
- That the Chief Executive Officer be immediately suspended pending the outcome of the above enquiry.
Cllr Miller said: "Last week's revelations were the last straw. Pembrokeshire Council's decision to allow the Chief Executive to opt out of the Local Government Pension Scheme and collect his employers contribution as cash may not have been illegal but it was definitely wrong."
* The Western Telegraph first revealed the controverisal pension arrangements in January, 2012. Click here for details.