Julie James AM, Minister for Housing and Local Government
On 27 June, I issued a statement confirming my intention to provide Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council with formal support under section 28 of the Local Government (Wales) Measure 2009. That can be found here.
On 18 July I confirmed in a further statement (here) that I had appointed two experienced advisers to deliver the first phase of support, involving an initial scoping review of the issues, on my behalf.
Mr John Gilbert, a former experienced local authority Chief Executive, was appointed as an external adviser on corporate matters to undertake the scoping review in order to provide a rigorous independent perspective of Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council's current challenges and advise on actions required to make the necessary changes which would inform further support and advice.
Ms Kate Allsop is a former elected mayor of Mansfield Council, standing as a member of the ‘Mansfield Independent Forum’. Her role in Merthyr was very clear: she was appointed as an adviser to provide members with politically non-aligned advice and support on effective governance, engaging across political parties and balancing strategic priorities with local needs. On the basis of her work she would then provide a report to me on what steps would need to be taken for future support and improvement. Ms Allsop needed to work closely and effectively with the Leader, Cabinet and other council members from all political parties in the Council to develop and strengthen working relationships.
However, on Friday 2 August, without giving me or my officials advance notice, Ms Allsop announced that she would be standing at the next general election as a parliamentary candidate for the Brexit party. On Saturday 3 August, in light of this announcement, it was agreed Ms Allsop could no longer continue as a political adviser for this initial phase of formal support.
Ms Allsop was appointed following a thorough selection process. My officials worked with the Welsh Local Government Association, who liaised with the Local Government Association, as a recognised source of credible expertise, to assist in identifying suitable candidates to fulfil the role of an independent peer adviser. A number of these candidates came from outside Wales. I am always seeking to learn from practice elsewhere and not constrain my choices by geography. Much can be learned by engaging advisers with expertise from outside of Wales. Welsh Government Ministers and the Welsh Local Government Association have often in the past balanced a range of inputs to our advice. In this case I was content that the candidates I considered could bring a useful mix of relevant experience and fresh perspectives. Previous packages of support that the Welsh Government has offered to councils have benefited significantly from this form of external input.
Given the current political make up of Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council and after discussion with the Leader, an adviser with an independent political background was a key factor in identifying a candidate with whom the majority of members would work.
Ms Allsop gave us no indication either in her CV or subsequent conversations that she was currently affiliated to any political party, or that she was considering standing for a political party when my officials considered her suitability for the role. I therefore made her appointment on this basis as an independent peer adviser, based on her undoubted extensive experience working at the highest level over a number of years as an independent councillor in local government. However, Ms Allsop’s declaration to stand as an MP fundamentally changed the nature of her status as independent and therefore compromised the basis on which I made her appointment. I would not appoint a candidate to any adviser post who was prominently engaged in national political activity.
This has been a surprising and unwelcome series of events. But we must not allow them to deflect from the issue at hand. Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council’s current position is serious and our focus should remain on supporting the Council to ensure it is able to serve the people of Merthyr Tydfil effectively and efficiently; and working hard to ensure this initial phase of support is completed as quickly as possible.
My external adviser Mr John Gilbert will continue his role to undertake the initial review of the Council. As I have said previously the review will scope the main challenges facing the Council and at the end of it Mr Gilbert will provide a report setting out his findings which will be used to identify immediate actions and also inform the next phase of the support package. Mr Gilbert is due to report in mid September and I will reflect then on the nature of political support which will be provided to the Council.
I have discussed this with the Leader of the Council, Councillor Kevin O’Neill, and he is in agreement on the way forward.
This statement is being issued during recess in order to keep members informed. Should Members wish me to make a further statement or to answer questions on this when the Assembly returns I would be happy to do so.