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Monitoring officer at Welsh council survives no confidence vote

The monitoring officer of a local authority in Wales survived a vote of no confidence earlier this month.

Five motions were tabled by separate members of Pembrokeshire County Council for a meeting on 6 March.

Central to the debate was the role that Laurence Harding, the authority’s monitoring officer, had played in the run-up to an extraordinary meeting of the full council the previous month (14 February).

This meeting was called to consider a Wales Audit Office public interest report on pension arrangements for senior officers.

The WAO report had concluded that a decision taken by Pembrokeshire – to allow senior officers to receive payments equivalent to the employers’ pension contributions if they opted out of the Local Government Pension Scheme – was unlawful.

At the meeting on 14 February, councillors at Pembrokeshire were due to debate a motion calling for the council’s chief executive, Bryn Parry-Jones, to stand aside while the matter was investigated.

However, Harding had beforehand given press cuttings – and other papers – to a QC (Tim Kerr of 11KBW) who was advising the council in relation to the WAO report and was in attendance at the meeting.

The silk told the meeting that he considered that some of those members commenting to the press had potentially determined their position.

Cllr Mike Stoddart, one of those to have put forward a motion, separately complained about difficulties in accessing information he considered he was entitled to see and copy.

He said the monitoring officer should facilitate the accessing of information, as well as keep the council “on the straight and narrow” and be “above the fray”. Harding had failed in that role, Cllr Stoddard argued.

Cllr Jacob Williams criticised the handling of the issue of the press cuttings and predetermination, claiming that there had been an ‘ambush’ and the monitoring officer should have brought it to the attention of affected members ahead of the meeting before informing the QC.

The Leader of Pembrokeshire, Cllr Jamie Adams, defended Harding's role, pointing out that the lawyer was the instructing solicitor and it was his role and obligation to provide the QC with relevant information, which included the cuttings of the two newspapers.

“The monitoring officer is, of course, to be impartial, and that has been stated, and I truly believe that the monitoring office we have undertakes his role with that regard,” he said.

Cllr Adams added: “It is difficult on occasions to balance various aspects of local government law. We know that ourselves from some of the aspects that we have discussed between ourselves and the Wales Audit Office and much of that is down to interpretation.”

He said that Harding had always provided him with sound advice on a personal basis in his role as Leader of the council.

The five notices of no confidence were subsequently tabled at the meeting on 6 March. However, they failed by 20 votes to 34 with one abstention.

A number of motions of no confidence in Bryn Parry-Jones also failed at the meeting.