PEMBROKESHIRE County Council’s chief executive is to be invited to voluntarily repay the money he received in “unlawful” pension payments.
In September 2011, behind closed doors, the council’s senior staff committee decided to allow senior officers to receive the equivalent of the employer’s pension contribution when opting out of the local government pension scheme.
In January the Wales Audit Office (WAO) ruled that the decision was “unlawful” and the payments – received by council chief executive Bryn Parry Jones and one unnamed head of service - were “contrary to law”.
At an extraordinary meeting today (Thursday), 32 councillors voted in favour of asking the officers to repay the money, minus tax and National Insurance contributions. The responses will be presented to full council in July.
Twenty-one members voted against the motion which was put forward as an amendment by Councillor Jacob Williams, who together with Cllrs Paul Miller, Mike Stoddart, Tony Wilcox and Roderick Bowen called on the council to look at recovering the money.
If responses are not received, council will reconsider the original bid, members decided.
Council leader Cllr Jamie Adams said the move would be “entirely inappropriate”, “costly” and lead to a “breakdown of trust” between the authority and its employees.
He said: “It would be very odd for an employer to request employees to return funding in any way that had been put to them in good faith and received in good faith.”
The council rescinded its decision and withdrew the opt scheme at a hugely controversial meeting on February 14, during which several councillors left the chamber after being told they had predetermined their vote.
At Today’s meeting, Cllr Adams said continuing the debate “was not doing this authority any good” and putting employees in an “invidious” postion.
He added: “The sooner we draw a line under this, which we did on February 14, the better for everyone concerned and primarily for the people we provide services for in this county.
“We have to recognise that the payments will go down as a mistake of this council. I put my hands up for my part in that, I have apologised, I have learned from that and I move on. I would respectfully suggest that council also moves on.”
But other members disagreed. “Would it not be better to restore a bit of faith in the council from the people of Pembrokeshire and then draw a line under it?,” said Cllr Alison Lee.
Cllr Williams added: “There needs to be some sort of closure, people want some form of closure on this.”
Cllr Tessa Hodgson criticised the council for being willing to pay to defend its position, but unwilling to pay to recover tax payers’ money.
In 2012/13, the council paid £22,269 to the chief executive in pension payments, with a further £23,337 paid to Mr Parry Jones and another senior officer in 2013/14. The payments were subject to 40% tax and National Insurance contributions.
Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse said he could see a moral, but not an economic, case for recovering the payments.
“What we are talking about here is something which appears to me to be a relatively small amount of money,” he said.
But Cllr Pat Davies said: “It may seem like a relatively insignificant amount of money for you but for the vast majority of people in this county it’s not."
According to previous legal advice from Tim kerr QC, the council is not bound to seek repayment and any proceedings would have to go through the civil courts.
Mr Parry Jones withdrew left the chamber during the discussion, prompting Cllrs Mike Stoddart and Michael Evans to question whether the second officer involved was present.
Head of legal and committee services Huw Miller said: “As far as I’m aware none of the officers present is the second officer.”