After hearing from all the main people in the drainage board scandal, I have concluded that the board cannot be reformed under the present set-up. In a letter to Welsh Minister John Griffiths, I set out my reasons for calling for an amalgamation with the other two Welsh boards or merging into the planned new single environmental body for Wales. The problems of the board are endemic and likely to re-surface unless drastic action is taken.
John Griffiths AM
Minister for Environment and Sustainable Development
Cardiff CF99 1NA
October 26, 2012
RE: Caldicot and Wentlooge Levels Drainage Board (CWLIDB)
Following the publication of the Wales Audit Office’s recent report Jessica Morden and I met the new General Manager Richard Penn. As a member of the public I attended a meeting of the full Board and I also had a meeting with the Auditor Mr. Anthony Barrett.
I am greatly concerned by the abuse that took place under the old regime on the Board. I was delighted to see that a former Chairman and long-serving member of the Board Mr. Neville Walters has now resigned.
The picture that was presented of the grotesque abuse is one that rightly has caused outrage. The extraordinary position that remains is that there is reluctance to pursue Mr. Jackson-Johns’ repayment for the sum that he was paid unfairly and possibly unlawfully. I understand that his maximum pay under the Lincolnshire rules should have been £60,000. At one time he was paid £83,000. When the increases to his pension-pot are included I understand that the over-payment is likely to be between £100,000 and £115,000.
At their meeting on Monday 15 October the Board was informed that recovery of this money was a major priority in the opinion of the auditor. The Board delayed a decision and decided to seek additional legal advice on whether pursuing the claim against Mr. Jackson-Johns would be sensible. The point was fairly made that the legal charges and costs might well be higher than the sum that might be recouped. I am concerned about this position. The likely decision of the Board at their next meeting may well be to take no action.
There is another, more important, consideration in that a failure to pursue Mr. Jackson-Johns sends a very dangerous message and precedent to others that may be in similar situations. The reason that prosecution may fail is because of the chaos of management when Mr. Jackson-Johns was General Manager. The minutes were at best inadequate and at worst nonexistent. It would be difficult to win a case on hearsay evidence alone.
There is a more serious point. If no attempt is made to retrieve the money, the message that this sends out is that the public purse can be looted at will as long as no record is kept of the events that are being taken place. This is an encouragement both of embezzlement of public money and an incentive to create a chaotic system on records and minutes.
I am hoping to take this matter up with the Crown Prosecution Service and point out that the public interest is not served by a failure to pursue Mr. Jackson-Johns. The decision of the Board might well be judged sensible in their own domestic interests if they decide not to pursue the matter. There is a far greater public interest in ensuring that this well-publicised matter is settled in a way that will ensure that there is little risk of a repetition of these events from this or other bodies.
Another matter that should be addressed is work carried out by the Board on the property of members of the board and management. These may have been done below cost or at nil cost. One egregious example of this is work on Mr. Jackson-Johns’ home, which was outside the regulations because his property is not situated on the levels. Repayment should be sought for this and any other work that was undercharged.
Following concerns expressed by the auditor, I am taking the matter up in Parliament. There is a likelihood that there might well be a hundred English boards or similar authorities that have no effective audit. I have been informed that what has occurred in Gwent might well be the tip of a very large iceberg. There could well be many QUANGOs and other groups that are being run as fiefdoms for a small group of people. The abuse of cronyism and bad governance that was exposed in this report is alarming. There is need for national action to ensure that the practices of the Caldicot and Wentlooge Levels Drainage Board are not widespread.
I am greatly concerned about the relations between Mr. Jackson Johns and his staff. While this is outside the remit of the Audit there are many worrying aspects. There has been a continuing history of members of the staff apparently being victimized and sacked by the previous regime. There are two recent cases. One is a lady who has taken redundancy and has signed a confidentially agreement that restricts any public comment by her. The other is under consideration by an Employment Tribunal. My concern is that this long history of bad relations between the former General Manager and his staff is a cause for serious concern. A pattern of atrocious staff relations may have resulted in the injustices suffered by previous staff may also have been repeated recently. This includes incidents of workers with encyclopedic knowledge of the levels. History should be borne in mind when the Board has served its own interest rather than the publics’.
There are other outstanding matters. The conditions that led to the situation described in the Audit Report have changed greatly under the new General Manager. However I remain concerned that many of the elements that led to the abuses remain. Although Mr. Neville Walters, and others, have resigned there are many elected and appointed members on the board who were in part responsible, by commission or omission, for the disgraceful situation that existed. While they remain there is a danger that continuity of the previous lack of scrutiny may occur.
I note that the present General Manager advised members of the Board to “stick to the script” in their dealings with press inquiries on the auditor’s report. I was surprised to witness the board members acquiescence in accepting, without any qualification or protest, a budget that Mr. Penn described as being based on “guesswork”. There seems to be very little attempt being made by the Board to probe what seemed to be inadequate information that was being presented to them on this issue. I fear that elements of the same culture of dominance by a General Manager and supine acceptance by board members might well continue in future.
While it is appreciated that Mr. Richard Penn has put many important changes in place I believe that there is an over-riding need for close surveillance of the Board for the next few years to ensure that the previous culture does not re-emerge with a recreation of the scandalous consequences.
While there is no control of the selection of the so-called elected members, none of whom have been elected, there is regrettable situation with the failure of Newport City Council to nominate so-called appointed members – all of whom have elected. It is hoped that Newport can provide experienced councillors to serve on the board to further a new culture of probity and efficiency.
The board is to provide figures of the levies charge. The auditor is concerned that non-agriculture welling may have been overcharged and agricultural land property undercharged. While both groups benefits from flood prevention work, landowners benefit to a far greater extent that owners of small homes in the urban areas. It is believed that this matter can be addressed at marginal cost.
A further lesson is the inherent danger of cronyism developing in micro-quangos when a large proportion of board members have a vested financial interest in the work of the organization. On the CWLIDB there is a theoretical majority of appointed members from local authorities. Because of the demands of council duties and the lesser significance of CWLIDB’s work, meetings are always dominated by the landowners’ interest. There seems no alternative but to disband these bodies and pass their duties over to a larger body. I am aware of the current consideration of alternative proposals. The worst possible choice for the future is the status quo.