Pembrokeshire council criticised over ‘informal culture’ and ‘inconsistent’ decisions

A lack of clarity and accountability means a Welsh council has made “inconsistent” decisions, a critical report has said. In a special inspection report, the Auditor General for Wales criticised Pembrokeshire council for “too much informality” which had weakened accountability within the authority.

Auditor General Huw Vaughan Thomas launched the investigation after education inspectorate Estyn and the Social Services Inspectorate Wales published a damning report into its children’s services.

That report pointed to “failures within the culture of the authority and the absence of effective governance in relation to safeguarding and protecting children”.

The Auditor General’s inspection looked into whether the weaknesses identified were more widespread, particularly whether weaknesses in democratic accountability and governance were systemic.

Mr Thomas found that there was too much informality in the way the council operates, with an “unintended consequence” that its accountability was weakened.

He said: “I am satisfied on the evidence of our inspection that Pembrokeshire council does not need to overhaul its systems of governance and management and the public can be confident that the council is complying with its statutory requirements to make arrangements to improve.

“Having said that, there is a need for the council to address some management practices, like introducing more formal mechanisms to properly hold itself to account for decisions made and actions taken.”

The report said that “not enough attention” is paid to appropriately documenting discussions, actions, decisions or results at the Pembrokeshire authority.

It said: “Keeping appropriate written records is an effective way of assuring people that trust is well placed and that policies or instructions are being followed as intended.

“Without this, the council is exposed to risk because it makes it more difficult to hold people to account.

“There is also a lack of clarity and understanding in relation to some roles and responsibilities, along with some lack of transparency which means that effective challenge and scrutiny of policies and decisions is inconsistent.”

Mr Thomas’ report recommends Pembrokeshire council makes a number of improvements, such as ensuring documentation is kept for meetings and is made readily available.

Council leader John Davies described the investigation as “extremely thorough, searching and challenging”.

He said: “We welcome the report and the comments by the Auditor General. Successive inspections by the Wales Audit Office and others have indicated that the systems of governance and management at Pembrokeshire County Council are in good health.

“Over the lifetime of this council, we have been encouraged to simplify our processes and to work to cut bureaucracy and red tape. We have sought to do this to ensure that our resources are targeted at frontline services and this has resulted in the report’s finding that the council needs more formality.

“The council has been absolutely committed to continuous improvement since its inception and we accept the Auditor General’s recommendations. We shall be taking forward the issues from this report.”

The Auditor General investigation follows a report by schools inspectorate Estyn and Care and Social Services Inspectorate Wales last August.

The report investigated 25 cases of allegations of child abuse in the county’s education services by professionals ranging from headteachers to youth workers.

The Estyn and Care and Social Services Inspectorate Wales report found that in some cases decisions were taken not to suspend the accused, despite views of social services and the police to the contrary.

Children’s Commissioner Keith Towler described it as “deeply disturbing”.