Wednesday, 29 February 2012


As I have made clear in the heading of this blog, I intend to stand for election on May 3rd for the county council as an independent candidate. When I say independent I mean just that - the ruling coalition administration of the council, whipped by the Leader Cllr Meryl Gravell, has systematically turned the concept into a complete joke.

Here's a reminder of the dictionary definition of independent;

1. Not controlled by another; in politics, free from the authority, control, or domination of somebody or something else.....and

2. Not affiliated to political party; not belonging to, representing, or supporting any political party....and

3. Capable of thinking or acting without consultation or guidance from others.

If I am fortunate to be elected my first priority will be to give the residents of my area a very strong voice in County Hall. I also intend to continue to campaign for transparency and accountability to benefit the whole of the county. I will also continue to write this blog in exactly the same truthful manner as I have for the past three years.

Whether I am elected or not is beside the point, I again urge the people of Carmarthenshire to vote for change or even stand themselves. The increasingly bizarre decisions taken by very senior officers, sanctioned time and time again by the puppet Executive Board must be challenged. The few backbench Councillors who do try, will, I hope, find new strength in numbers and loud voices to lead this council into a new era where they, as representatives of the residents of Carmarthenshire make the decisions, and not the unelected officers.

This undemocratic, unaccountable and increasingly farcical situation we find ourselves in must not be allowed to continue for another five years.

On the subject of votes, I noticed sometime this morning that the Council's 'filming' poll on their website had been reset to zero. This was after nearly 400 people had taken the trouble to express their opinion to this 'listening' council and vote - if I remember rightly well over 300 people had voted 'yes'.

How convenient. I daresay it will be called a 'technical error'. If you wish to take the trouble and vote again you will have to delete the appropriate 'cookie', (a handy tip from a commenter on Y Cneifiwr's blog), and recast your vote.

Filming Carmarthenshire Council meetings, however it's done, should no longer be a matter of lengthy drawn out debate it is becoming an urgent necessity. And quite clearly, they have the funds.

Update 1st March; The Council's filming poll has now disappeared completely.

Update 2nd March; After the above confusion the result of the filming poll is now on the council website;

"369 people (89.56%) said they would be likely to watch if the Council were to stream meetings online. 43 people (10.44%) said they would not be likely to watch"

So that's a resounding YES then!

Monday, 27 February 2012

The Council, the church...and more on 'exempt items'

I, and others, are still pondering about the peculiar generosity shown by the Council to the evangelical 'bowling alley' project led by the Towy Community Church (many previous posts, including here).

I wrote to the Wales Audit Office in mid-January asking them to investigate the whole matter, I had an acknowledgement, and I am now waiting patiently for a response.

We have all been led to believe that the church are charged a 'peppercorn' rent for the land, which may be true, and may be 10p or £10 a year, we don't know. I was interested therefore to read this quote from the head of the church in 2010 from an advice site for church organisations, "The Council bought the 2.7 acre site and in a remarkable act of generosity transferred it to the church free of charge" Remarkable indeed. And maybe the council had the church in mind when it bought the land, (worth £750,000) ...again...who knows? I am sure the multitude of other small churches, chapels and affiliated community groups in the county, many in crumbling and leaky premises will be, quite rightly, expecting similar remarkable acts.

You may remember last December's full council meeting and the exempt item concerning the £280,000 loan to the church which saw the exemption lifted to 'dispel rumours circulating in the press'. This was a rare occurence indeed and appeared to be a bit of a PR move prompted by our more religiously fervent officers and Members of the council. The issue of 'exempt items' reminded me of an editorial from the Carmarthen Journal from March 2007 when an equally controversial matter was being discussed, that of the Parc Y Scarlets 'won't cost the taxpayers a penny' stadium in Llanelli.

Oh, and here it is...

"Visits to County Hall Carmarthen always provide plenty of material for debate.
Last Friday's meeting of the full council was no exception.
The shiny suit and clean shoes had been donned all because the council had what they described as an 'exempt item' on the agenda.
To translate; an exempt item' is where the council uses the Local Government Act to kick the press and public out of the meeting and hold a session in camera - in secret.
For sometime now, the usual sequence of events has seen the chairman of the day simply refer to the agenda item being exempt. The press and any members of the public have then meekly moved out of the chamber.
Friday was a little different. I'd objected in writing to the secret session (to discuss the proposed new Scarlets stadium at Pemberton) and been told, very courteously, that my arguments didn't hold water.
What happened next was unusual in that two councillors - John Jenkins and Neil Baker - stood up to argue that the item should be discussed in public as there would be no confidential information in the planned discussion.
But council officers disagreed and, after a vote by councillors, the press and public were told to leave the meeting.
Officers said that, although most of the figures under discussion were already in the public domain, allowing them to be heard again could influence quotes for building work.
Councillor Jenkins provided the Quote of the Day when he made reference to the fact there was no one in the public gallery for the full council meeting.
"I fail to see why this report cannot be heard in public. If we chuck the public out for the juicy bits, that's why they don't come to our meetings."
Is this very important to you, dear reader? Well, only when you consider that meekly accepting council 'exempt items' (no matter what the topic) will no longer be on the agenda in this newsroom"
(March 2007, Carmarthen Journal)

Well, 'exempt items' appear to depend on the subject matter perhaps.... one exempt item from last year dealing with the 'transfer of toilets to community councils' seemed to require extreme secrecy.

In fact the most recent Executive Board meeting had an exempt item to discuss, ironically, the accountability and transparency of senior officers pay, (so urgent and secret it didn't even appear on the agenda). Incidentally, concerns were expressed about the lack of guidance from the Welsh Government on the new requirement, under the Localism Bill to produce an annual 'Pay Policy Statement' by the end of March.....the WAG guidance, I note, can actually be found here.

Pantycelyn School - The Last Stand

For those battling to stop Carmarthenshire County Council from closing Pantycelyn secondary school, Llandovery, the fight goes on. This is despite an adverse ruling in February where a judge refused permission for a Judicial Review concerning the closure and the site selection process for the new school. The campaigners have now heard there will be an oral appeal against the ruling, in front of a different judge on the 8th March.
The council, in the shape of the Cllr Gwynne Wooldridge, the Executive Board Member with the responsibility for education, has of course denounced the campaigners for not accepting the judge's ruling and accused them of jeopardizing the youngsters' education. A common theme regarding opposition to any council-led projects, no matter how flawed.  As you may recall from previous blog posts the closure of this school, as part of the Council's plan to 'modernise education' will mean children will have to travel miles to the new school, when and if it is built, and the disappearance of such an essential part of the community will have a devastating effect on the small market town of Llandovery. 

The judge had concluded, from the written evidence, that 'all matters' had been properly considered - apart from the one relating to public opinion of course, which Carmarthenshire Council has ensured was never taken into account. The local Members, Cllrs Jackson and Theophilus (Llandovery and surrounding area) now have their chance, finally, to publicly express their support for the aims of the Action Group, and make submissions to the oral hearing without delay, before the heart of the community they supposedly represent is ripped out. They stated their opposition to closure at a meeting of full council a couple of months ago but of course it was too late for their views, for whatever they are worth in this officer-led council, to be taken into consideration - this will be their last chance.

Here's a press release from the Ysgol Pantycelyn Action Group;

"The statement issued by Carmarthenshire Council implies that it is only the Ysgol Pantycelyn Action Group (YPAG) seeking a Judicial Review (JR), but one must remember also the wholehearted support of Llandovery town with a petition with of over 2000 names and letters. YPAG have also secured £12000 worth of pledges in opposition to the scheme and the full support of Llandovery Town Council.

We – YPAG - still maintain that the choice of site was never included in the original consultation and was never one of the sites looked at by the consultants Atkins and we also maintain that the consultation process was already pre-decided.

YPAG are still actively pursuing the JR application and have requested an oral hearing, which is being held on the 8th March 2012 in Cardiff Civil Centre.

 The school started to suffer as soon as it was announced that the school might close. The pupils are not suffering from the legal action, but will definitely suffer if the new school is built in Ffairfach. Let us not forget that all pupils from Llandovery and the surroundings areas will have to travel vast distances if the new school proposals go ahead.

Cllr Gwynne Wooldridge does not seem to have taken into account the very nature of this unique rural area, nor the fact that Pantycelyn is a very successful secondary school.
Carmarthenshire County Council have contributed towards falling pupil numbers at Pantycelyn as they have never allowed any development in the town or surrounding areas. They therefore must take some of the responsibility for this.


Previous posts include; Pantycelyn Update and Poetry Please

Rumours I have been hearing for a few days are now confirmed - the Dinefwr programme concerning Pantycelyn has now been postponed for one year as the Welsh Minister will not make a determination whether or not to 'call-in' the decision until the legal process has been completed.
This is good news and will give everybody more time to reflect on the consequences of this school closure on the children, parents and wider community.

I would like to add that the information about the postponement was in the form of an 'Update' from Mr Sully, Director of Education. It was sent home with all the pupils from Pantycelyn. In it he says; "a group of stakeholders have actively pursued gaining permission to launch a legal claim in the form of a Judicial Review..." Mr Sully appear to have been on the verge of calling them a group of outlaws - for 'stakeholders' read 'parents', 'children' and 'residents of Llandovery'.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Ombudsman warns councils over legal costs

Interesting article today from BBC Wales Online. The Ombudsman's comments were triggered by a case in Flintshire Council where the legal costs are predicted to reach six figure sums after an unlimited indemnity was offered to a Councillor defending allegations of bullying.

Curb extravagant tribunal costs, Welsh councils warned by ombudsman
The "extravagant" legal costs of defending councillors accused of breaching codes of conduct must end, Welsh local authorities have been told.
Wales' public service ombudsman says councils must put a £10,000 cap on backing individual members.
One council faces a potential bill of a six-figure sum in a single case, BBC Wales can reveal.
Ombudsman Peter Tyndall said: "I believe that such extravagance cannot be justified."
At least nine councils still offer uncapped indemnity costs to their members accused of breaking the rules.
But the ombudsman is warning that this is leading to "hugely disproportionate expenditure" and cases lasting several months.
The availability of unlimited indemnity, sometimes backed by insurance, has led to hugely disproportionate expenditure”
The tribunal hearing the case of a Flintshire councillor will reconvene in Mold on Thursday.
It has now lasted more than a year, opening in January 2011, and the council faces potential costs of a six-figure sum after offering unlimited indemnity at the start of the case.
Mr Tyndall said he was concerned that councils are dragging their feet to implement a £10,000 cap on the indemnity offered in such cases, a move that has the backing of Local Government Minister Carl Sargeant.
In a letter to the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA), he says he fully accepts that councillors must be in a position to put forward a case in their defence when they are accused of breaching their code.
He writes: "In some current and recent cases, the availability of unlimited indemnity, sometimes backed by insurance, has led to hugely disproportionate expenditure, with cases, in some instances, lasting many months.
"At a time of great pressure on public expenditure, I believe that such extravagance cannot be justified."
He was concerned that the current system encouraged wasteful expenditure and the "reputational damage" that may arise but progress from councils in introducing a cap was "slower than desirable"...
The liability for, and the level of costs, will only be determined at the conclusion of the protracted adjudication panel hearing”
.....Senior figures acknowledge the current system, where some councils still offer unlimited indemnity, whereas others have introduced varying caps and others do not offer any indemnity, is messy and in need of reform.

Full article from BBC Wales;

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Little Boxes

I don't seem to be getting very far with my request to Carmarthenshire Council for 'Details of officers expenses' (thirteen senior officers). I originally made the request last December, the response, (a refusal under costs grounds) was late and the information seemed to be was scattered around County Hall, with some of it 'in boxes' and some of it on an internal online data base. On February the 12th I asked for an internal review.
With alarming speed the review was completed 10 days later with a fiery response from the Acting Head of Law;

" detailed review of your request is set out below. However I would first like to correct the inaccuracies contained within your email. It is wrong to suggest that the Authority does not know where the expenses claims are kept or that they are scattered around County Hall. Mr Tillman [FoI officer] did not say either of these things. The expenses claims are stored in a known location, in accordance with the system clearly set out in Mr Tillman's letter"

Well, that told me didn't it?
The full thread of this request can be seen here. it was on the WhatDoTheyKnowSite, there was no seperate 'letter' or email.

I leave you to judge for yourself whether Carmarthenshire Council would be better served by using a simple, uniform filing system, and just how 'clearly' the system was 'set out' in Mr Tillman's response as below;

"Your request covers a five year period and there are thirteen officers listed in your request. Of these, twelve officers have made expenses claims, which are normally submitted monthly. Twelve of the officers included in your request have also made use of an electronic claim form, using the Council's Resourcelink system. This differs for each officer - some first made use of this in 2009, others in 2010 or 2011. however, the majority of the claims submitted in the period covered by your request are recorded manually on paper claim forms. Once processed, these claim forms are archived in batches of 50 for each month in employee number order, but not by order of department. Around 3 to 5 batches are then placed in boxes which specify only the month and year of the claims. There are usually six boxes per month. Extracting all of the forms submitted by these officers for the entire period covered by your request would therefore entail manually retrieving these claim form batches and extracting the relevant information from them. It is difficult to provide a precise estimate as to how long this would take, however, we have undertaken a sampling exercise [a time and motion study?] and found that it took three minutes to locate and retrieve the June 2009 claim form for one of the thirteen officers. A further 2 to 5 minutes would then be spent on extracting the information from each form, depending on how many items have been claimed for. Based on this, it would take at least 60 hours to complete this work and comply fully with your request"

Phew, I'm exhausted at the thought! There must be so many claims!  Apparently they are happy to provide me with the information on the 'Resourcelink' system. Looks like I'll have to settle for that or be accused of costing the authority a fortune.

I can see why it took Heather Brooke so long to extract the MPs expenses.

Part of my request was for the fees and expenses for the Returning Officer, I would have thought this was easier to locate but so far they have quietly ignored that bit. I then looked at other requests, to other councils for the same information. It turns out that Returning Officers do not come under the control of the council; their role is in a 'personal capacity' under the Representation of the People Act and no one 'appointed' under this Act is subject to FoI. However, most councils are perfectly happy to disclose the details. It is odd that Carmarthenshire Council haven't mentioned this. Or that the maximum limits or 'charges', set by law can be seen here. Maybe I shall ask again about this in my 'refocussed' request.

I did not intend to 'shoot the messenger' and believe Mr Tillman has, over the years, answered my requests as best he can, given the information provided to him. It is the system which is clearly at fault and a reluctance from some, for whatever reason, to provide me, and the rest of us, with the information.

Yet again transparency in Carmarthenshire has the consistency of mud. This is important information, why isn't itavailable at the touch of a button? or even a mouse...

Update 6th April 2012 - Little boxes (part 2)


Must just mention, before I go,  Llangunnor Community Council near Carmarthen are considering filming their meetings - I hope they do; 

Old Grumpy's is back!

Pleased to see that Pembrokeshire blogger, Old Grumpy, is back, fresh from his recent battles with the Ombudsman. Enjoy.

"The Pembrokeshire news you won't find in the papers"

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Council budget meeting....and a sleeping councillor

Well, after looking at accounts of recent council budget meetings around the UK, I imagined today's meeting to be a lengthy, detailed debate on Carmarthenshire council's budget, I was somewhat surprised that it was all over in a couple of hours with the budget zipping through in slightly less than 45 minutes.
The public gallery was almost empty, one member of the public had requested an agenda from reception but 'this wasn't allowed'. With the place pretty much to themselves, not being filmed that is, and most people too busy to attend, (I notice many councils hold their meetings in the evening) it all went through as smoothly as a diktat from soviet Russia
First up, after the prayers, (dear god give me strength) was the Leader's introduction to the budget proposals. Fortunately someone had the foresight to write this speech for her and this time she was positioned on the executive podium so presumably she could be kept on a tight rein. Best buddy, Cllr Pam Palmer looked a bit lost sat in the stalls without her. Meryl rambled on for about 15 minutes about the 'tough times ahead' and how she and the officers had managed to cut the proposed 4% council tax increase down to 1.97%, she repeated the little concessions, all temporary mind you, which had popped up a few weeks ago, museums, school dinners etc (much to everyone's surprise as there had been no meeting nor minutes). It appears the officers had been tasked to twiddle the figures for the benefit of the Executive Board but by the time Plaid had asked (see later) there was no more twiddling to be done.
She also went on to emphasise how much consultation had taken place with the various scrutiny committees etc and also with the public, I can't remember being asked my views but apparently a single event had been held at those other expensive council offices, the Parc Y scarlets stadium. Anyhow the speechwriters from the department of spin had done her proud and she was even able to say that she was pleased to confirm that rent for council houses had gone up by 5.4% - this was now at national levels and was necessary to maintain the high standards of Carmarthenshire homes - everyone in the county was now healthy and 'feeling fine' thanks to her and Mark. Great. She concluded, as you may imagine, with tributes to the Chief and the Director of Resources.

Next up was the Director of Resources himself who repeated much of what Meryl had said and that he 'lived in hope' that things would get better (I presume he was referring to the economic situation and not life in the employ of Carmarthenshire Council) The outlook was 'gloomy' but he made re-assuring use of the words 'robust' and 'diligent' so everyone felt better.
He seemed to have spent much of the preceding weeks and months trying to explain the intricacies of complex council accounts to councillors, and judging by the yawns and expressionless stares from most, he'd clearly been wasting his time. (I am no expert either, but I'm not making spending decisions am I).

The only thing then which stood in the way of an Executive 'trebles all round' moment was an amendment put forward by Meilyr Hughes of the Plaid opposition group for 0% raise in Council Tax. Other councils had managed it, so why couldn't we? The 'squeezed' middle earners were mentioned as earning too much for benefits but too little for comfort. I guess everyone is squeezed apart from the top earners, several of whom were sat opposite me today. With everything going up, including the charges the council itself makes for car parks, leisure centres, rent etc,  it was all about quality of life and to up the council tax on top of all that was unreasonable. Plaid had come up with a reasonable method of funding this which included the further use of reserves (eg £1m from the £9.1m 'insurance fund') but that was dismissed by the Resources Chief as the reserves were predicted to become dangerously low over the next three years anyway
Other sources of funding included a hope that Cwm Environmental may eventually return a dividend to it's one and only shareholder, the council. This was greeted by nothing more than a few giggles. Why, someone else asked was the Welsh Assembly 'Outcome Agreement' (extra money for reaching an assortment of 'targets') used by other councils for their revenue budgets but here in Carmarthenshire it went straight into capital projects and possible extra white elephants, couldn't a couple of hundred grand not come out of that? Peter Hughes Griffiths, the Plaid Leader remarked that Menter Iaith, whose funding had been cut by 10% at a time when a new report estimated that the Welsh language was losing 3000 speakers a year, he pointed out that the Council were supposed to be committed to the Welsh language, how had they managed to have just found £20,000 for the Scarlets and extra £15,000 for the Botanic Gardens etc? We could also mention a few other things here such as the evangelical bowling alley...

Deputy Leader Cllr Madge (Lab) then rose to his feet and told Plaid they were living on hope, who know what might happen? What if there was another war? he said. They were clearly mad, Labour and the Independent Tories were great, look at all the wonderful things they'd done...the envy of the world blah blah.. you get the drift.

At this point I noticed that one councillor sitting quite close to the front, for all to see, (I'll not name him but there were witnesses and he knows who he is) was sound asleep, not just nodding off, but semi-recumbent on the seat. Filming meetings?......where's my that point I was wondering whether anyone was going to wake him up for the vote....

Cllr Caiach was then allowed to speak, she supported Plaid's amendment and added that it was the small cuts to organisations such as Breakthro' Llanelli for disabled adults and kids which were suffering (there's a whole lot more in the documents - Item 5.1 and reports).
It wasn't a debate about this sort of awkward detail though, you've no hope of a good headline then have you?...

The general gist of the Plaid Cymru amendment was - the residents of Carmarthenshire are getting screwed enough, why screw them further?

Cllr Pam Palmer rose angrily to her feet called Plaid foolhardy and (to paraphrase) 'unco-operative'. She then glared in the general direction of the labour bench and blasted Peter Hain MP (Lab) (he wasn't actually there) for calling all the independent Coucillors 'Closet Tories' - 'I am certainly not a Tory', she said, with her best Margaret Thatcher tone...nor was she, she said, 'past her sell by date' - I am not sure who had had the audacity to say such a thing....perhaps it was Peter Hain being specific about Cllr Palmer...perhaps she should have been a bit clearer....she ended her little tirade quoting 'Old Mother Hubbard' (I think as a metaphorical warning rather than self-reflection...)

The Resources director put the amendment to death by dazzling everyone with figures, the 'council had not met it's efficiency targets for last year yet, never mind this year', he issued forth with further percentages and weird accountant talk, which, for all anyone knew, was complete b******s. It appeared that any hope of further dipping into the reserves had been dashed as Meryl had beaten Plaid to it with the vote winning move earlier last month. The early they say.

As the time came for the vote on the amendment, as usual, Chairman Cllr Ivor Jackson became thoroughly confused, and so the Chief Executive came to the rescue and explained, as if to small children, how to vote. The vote was recorded and the amendment was lost by 37 vote to 27.

I expect we can all look forward to a glowing prediction for the future in the next edition of the council rag - as long as you vote for Meryl and co that is....

Carmarthenshire Council 2012

Next came a report on  'Creating Quality homes and Healthy Communities'. Executive Board Member Huw Evans gave a retiring speech as he's stepping down in May. Concerns were raised about the lack of social housing with 7500 on the waiting list, Meryl  interjected and said, mysteriously, that she'd had an 'influential' meeting with Edwina Hart AM  with her 'new ideas' for social housing...tents...shanty towns perhaps? We were all left wondering. A Plaid councillor wondered why energy efficiency targets in council homes were stated as 100% when only 8607 out of 9072 had been complete - apparently it was not misleading as they were unable, for structural reasons to adapt 400 of them.
Further tributes followed with Cllr Madge again on his feet saying how lovely all the housing estates were with lots of like Pobl y Cwm (popular Welsh soap opera)...he went on briefly about polytunnels then ran out of steam. Anthony Jones (Lab) proceeded to give a party political speech but he was soon rumbled and sat down.

Lastly was the Local Development Plan. the Head of Planning's moment. It was all going to plan, he said...yes they had quite a lot of extra work to do, it was a bit behind schedule (or, in jargon; 'revisiting the Delivery Agreement')...more on the Welsh language, more on flooding...but now it was time for the next 'consultation' for all the 'alternative sites' put forward at the last consultation. Someone asked him to explain this disjointed sentence from the bottom of the report; "LDP this report seeks authority to produce and adopt 6" (there was no '6' in the report) The response was not clear, something about looking again at six areas of special guidance and adding another one, Welsh language making it seven. I think. No one was sure.
Not placated about the special reference to Welsh, the Plaid opposition re-iterated the call among many Welsh councils that the LDPs should be postponed until more up to date (and I have to say, more realistic) population figures could be obtained. John Edwards wondered why this process, seemingly without-end, costing £1000's, still failed to deliver homes that ordinary people could afford....what was the point?
On that rather awkward note, the Head of Planning swept aside all criticism and blamed everything on the Welsh Government for bringing out endless guidance, and he added a warning that if the new LDP was not 'adopted' by 2016 there would be no 'plan' and they won't be able to process planning applications at all . I'm not sure that would be a bad thing......

The unlawful undertaking; I had to have permission from the Democratic Services Manager to have a blank copy

With my earlier reference to the Council rag, the Carmarthenshire News (no mention today of this colossal waste of money - see many previous posts), Y Cneifiwr has written an interesting post relating to this and other things here; Freedom of the Press and Carmarthenshire County Council

Saturday, 18 February 2012

The Pickles Paradox

I have conflicting thoughts about Mr Eric Pickles this morning. A couple of days ago I welcomed his announcement that the pay of senior council officers should be scrutinised to eradicate tax avoidance arrangements. The full statement from the Department of Communities and Local Government can be read here . I am all for greater transparency leading to improved accountability.

With that in mind, it is worrying that the Freedom of Information Act is currently under threat after the Ministry of Justice issued a report recommending that that members of the public and journalists should be charged for obtaining information, this may make transparency through legislation vital. I trust, however, that common sense will prevail and the huge importance and overriding advantages of the Act will be recognised and strengthened rather than curtailed in any way at all. I have used the Act, in my own small way, through the public WhatDoTheyKnow site, in an attempt to open up Carmarthenshire Council and place on public record details of decisions and expenditure which would otherwise remain hidden. I have had varying degrees of success and failure whilst wading through the treacle of FoI Carmarthenshire. Incidentally, for those that value the Act there is something of a campaign on Twitter to preserve and bolster our access to information, where you will find links to excellent blogposts from an assortment of campaigners which include members of the public, journalists and even FoI officers. (for those familiar with Twitter, use the hashtag #foi or #savefoi)

However, it was this morning's announcement  by Mr Pickles that he will overturn the judge's ruling over council prayers that raises some interesting issues.  I mentioned this the other day (To power..and beyond) and as I said, it was not whole ethical issue of religious ritual I found significant but the limitations which had been placed on the power of local authorities under the Local Government Act.

In his actions, Mr Pickles has pushed through the part of the Localism Bill which basically enables Local Authorities to do anything an individual can do as long as it is not illegal. This is not far removed from the powers already available in the Local Government Act, where virtually anything is possible as long as it is to 'promote the functions of the council and the well-being of the residents' - this can be very widely interpreted indeed and led the judge in the Bideford case to consider a summon to prayer, not the act of prayer itself, as over and above this function. It seems to me that this element of the new Localism Bill will do nothing promote local democracy and public 'empowerment', but will merely strengthen the position of local authorites, particularly those considered less than democratic.
The problem is that the word 'illegal' is too narrow it doesn't cover those endless grey areas of local government about which the judge in the 'prayers' case was attempting to define. By furthering 'Localism' in this manner is Mr Pickles actually creating less accountable governance?

There is, however, another side to this that could be applied to our own Welsh Government, and particularly our Minister for Local Government; if he (Mr Pickles) can use his powers to overturn a judicial decision (I think it may remain to be seen whether he actually can) to enable local authorities to circumvent the limitations of the Local Government Act, who's to say that this cannot happen in reverse? Maybe our own Minister does have the power to overturn decisions, made by local authorites, it's senior officers, Executive Boards or full councils when those decisions are clearly not designed, nor intended, to either promote it's 'functions' and are in direct conflict with interest of local residents and democracy?

Know your limitations...

Re Listed Buildings

Should a listed building story pop up, the planners will trot out the line that they are one of only two Welsh Authorities who have been granted delegated power from CADW to approve/refuse listed building consents. Having had such a responsibility since 2001 you would think they would be aware that this power expressly forbids them the right to approve demolition, apparently not.

Numerous earlier posts on this blog followed the saga of Felin Wen Mill in Llandybie where the owner was prosecuted for removing machinery, although the building itself remained intact. Halfway through this protracted process, another listed mill, a couple of miles away was flattened by another mill owner.

The Western Mail has the story;

Planning bosses have come under fire for allowing the demolition of an iconic Amman Valley listed building.
The Old Mill in Pontaman was believed to be more than 200 years old when it was demolished in May 2010.
And campaigner Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM claims Carmarthenshire Council may have breached its own planning restrictions in allowing the demolition of the building – despite not having the authority to do so.
The council is one of only two Welsh local authorities with delegated listed building powers from CADW.
But that authority does not include demolition.
Mr Thomas believes that by granting demolition consent, the authority may have breached planning laws.
Mr Thomas said his concern was not related to the actions of the mill owner, but to the failings of the authority itself.
“It is important that the correct definition of demolition, as noted in regulation, is applied in the local authority’s work when granting a listed building work of this nature,” he said.
“I am minded to believe that the council may have, by granting the consent for the demolition of a listed building, breached the delegated authority granted to it.
“I received information, last April, from the former Minister for Heritage stating that our local council does not have permission to grant consent for demolition.
“Furthermore, minutes of the council’s executive board meeting in 2001 when the authority agreed to seek that delegated authority, categorically states the powers do not include demolition permission.
“I am concerned that the local authority should have been aware of its limitations since day one, but has still chosen to award listed building consent when it does not have the power to do so.
“I have written to the Welsh Government and have raised these concerns with the Minister for Heritage.
“The taxpayers of the county need reassurance that their local planning authority has not acted beyond its limitations.”....
The row follows a lengthy and costly legal battle with another mill owner in the county who was prosecuted by Carmarthenshire Council for carrying out “more than the minimum required” to save his dilapidated mill.
Nigel Humphreys, of Llandybie, was initially cleared of illegally destroying the internal workings of the 19th century Grade II-listed Felin Wen mill during Christmas 2007.
When magistrates found in Mr Humphreys’ favour, the council took their case to the Appeal Court, who support findings but asked magistrates to reconsider certain elements of their decision.
The case was reheard, and Mr Humphreys was fined for “works involving the destruction of the water mill’s historic machinery were not limited to the minimum measures.”
He was fined £1,000 and ordered to pay £2,500 prosecution costs.
Mr Humphreys has always maintained he carried out only emergency work to save the mill from imminent collapse.
The case is believed to have cost the council in excess of £100,000.
Mr Humphreys last night said the decision making with the planning department at Carmarthenshire Council needed to be reviewed by an independent body.
“The decisions that have been taken clearly do not show any parity and I feel that the best interests of the listed buildings themselves are not being taken into consideration,” he said.
“By no means would I wish to see the owner of Pontaman Mill prosecuted as I was, but there clearly doesn’t seem to be a consistency.
“I think serious questions need to be asked as to why the planning authority saw fit to run up massive costs at risk to the taxpayer over one mill and allow another to be completely demolished.”
A Carmarthenshire Council spokesperson last night said: “The council is looking into the matter.

Full article here;

On a completely different note I must comment on a new piece of jargon I stumbled upon today, this time from the next Regen and Leisure Scrutiny Committee. It happens to relate to expenditure in Ammanford town centre, which has obviously 'slipped' forward into the next financial year but - 'front loading'....??

Slippage due to front loading of external funds

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Stress management, budgets and balls.

I see the Minutes have just been published for last week's Council meeting where, somehow or other, Meryl Gravell clung on to her Leader's crown. Sadly, there is no record, or even brief summaries of what was said either in support or against Meryl's leadership.  As the vote was recorded you can see who voted which way, something you and indeed the council staff she maligned, may wish to remember in May. Should the staff feel particularly overburdened, either by reduced pay, slashed overtime or by being labelled lazy by the council leader, they will, I am sure, feel so much better knowing the council are embarking on a three (to possibly five) year contract with a private stress management company. According to the tender, others who may use this service include a private school, Cwm Environmental and a pudding company. There we are.

I learn that ticket sales to the annual Chairman's Ball are disappointing. To be held at the taxpayer-draining council office, otherwise known as the Parc Y Scarlets stadium, councillors have been warned that the black tie charity bash may be cancelled due to lack of interest. Poor Cllr Ivor Jackson, could he be the first Council Chair to be too unpopular to have a Ball?

Here's the internal email sent to all Councillors;

"Sent: Wed 15/02/2012 17:04
To: DSU Members English Only
Subject: Charity Ball - 16/03/12

Dear Councillor

The Chairman of Council has been considering the responses received to his invitation to the Charity Ball to be held on Friday, 16th March 2012.
Unfortunately, due to the current lack of support, it is felt that it may be necessary to cancel the event.  A final decision will be made within the next few days.

Principal Democratic Services Officer (Chair's Office)" 

The next gripping highlight on the horizon is the Council's 'Budget special' next Tuesday (21st) where full council will debate the budget. In fact, this week's Carmarthen Journal has a piece with Meryl metaphorically rolling up her sleeves to 'get on with the job'. God help us. You can see which way that one will be going. A rather more 'link-worthy' article in the paper features Carmarthenshire's Women's Aid who will see their £6000 grant from the council 'deleted'.

I shall of course be at the meeting, in the public gallery. I hope as many as possible will join me. (next Tuesday, 10am County Hall, Carmarthen - arrive early due to ridiculous entry ritual, which could possibly include full body scans this time to detect hidden pens, paper, pointy hats, black cats etc).

Let's not forget the planning department who are ploughing on, regardless, with the the 'Carmarthen West Development Brief'. It has re-emerged again, this time at next Monday's Executive Board meeting. It is a long term plan to develop 129 hectares of mainly green fields to the west of Carmarthen (obviously) with hundreds of new houses, and is already attracting opposition. One worrying aspect of this is the total lack of commitment to any affordable homes, there is a fair bit of waffle about 'alternative arrangements' but the onus is definitely on the kind hearts of the developers, whoever they will be, to supply any, rather than on any insistence by the Council. Still, in their noble efforts to prevent any of their selected consultancy firms from feeling the economic pinch the council have now 'commissioned further work on the issue' the cost of which will probably equal that of a modest affordable home...

Oh and before I go, here's a recent post from another Carmarthenshire blog, 'A view from West Wales' regarding the entry procedures to the public gallery; The Kremlin on the Tywi  - the title says it all.

Monday, 13 February 2012

More Questions on the 'Undertaking' and a couple of FoI updates

Further to this previous post; 'Council Abandon Unlawful Filming Undertaking'  and the subsequent re-introduction of the undertaking, the Freedom of Information requester has now asked for further clarification. In addition to a full disclosure of the "internal email and/or memo records that reasonably fully describe the perceived necessity for them, legal basis for them, drafts produced, previous versions used (with their dates of use), and all procedures for their administrative roll-out" (the council provided one brief redacted email which is very obviously a snippet of a lengthy round of correspondence), the requester has also now asked;

"For the avoidance of doubt, since it may not be considered part of the FoI request by you, please be kind enough to justify legally the collection of addresses (for instance) from visitors to your public gallery.
 Such a procedure is not included in the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960, or in the consolidation of that into the Local Government Act 1972, or in later Acts.
You are presumably relying, for some reason, on the prevention of a breach of the peace or some similar sounding risk. However, I cannot guess, and I request that you tell me. Of course, your action has to be proportionate to the risk, or your action will be easily challenged in court, to force you to discontinue the procedure.
Please also state clearly how the forms are processed. For instance, do you consider that people must tell the truth, when filling out your form? Are people committing a criminal act if they lie? What established procedure exists, to decide if a form is "correct" or not? Do addresses have to be local? How local? Are you asserting that people have to live in your Authority's geographical area, and/or be on the electoral roll?
In deciding on your procedure, has the Authority been in communication with the police? That is, has the Authority received any advice (unrelated to any actual alleged offence)? Under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, please provide me with any documentation of that contact"

The response should be interesting.

On the subject of FoI's, I recently made a complaint to the Information Commissioner (ICO) regarding the Council's response (last October) to my request for 'Senior Council Officers' Register of Business and Personal Interests, and my post from last year on the subject is here; 'Just the Ticket'

It seems the ICO has given County Hall something of a nudge, and the Council's latest response includes the statement below. Described as an 'administrative error', an extra 51 pages, in total, have now been disclosed;
"I refer to your complaint to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) regarding the handling of your request for information on senior officers’declarations of interests, gifts and hospitality.
We have discussed your complaint with a caseworker at the ICO in Cardiff and in the course of doing so have also carried out a further review of the handling of your request.
This has highlighted failings in the searches undertaken when your request was initially dealt with and during the internal review which followed. Additional information is in fact held by the Council which falls within the scope of your request.  Due to an administrative error, a substantial number of declarations, held electronically, was overlooked by our Democratic Services Unit and only came to light following your complaint to the ICO.  This information is attached and we would sincerely apologise for failing to identify and provide this previously.
There are also seven other declarations made by four of the officers listed in your request which we did not consider were genuine declarations of interest, as they concerned these officers’ children.  For instance, a declaration that a daughter was employed in a Council department over which the officer does not have responsibility.  
However, having reviewed our position, we are of the view that these declarations did in fact fall within the scope of your request.
Nonetheless, we believe that the correct approach to these declarations
would be to withhold them from disclosure on the basis that they are
personal data that relate to the family members concerned."

The full email thread, on the WhatDoTheyKnow site, can be read here. The additional (and previous information) can be downloaded, for your information, from the site. I have now accepted the response as complete and shall be mentioning one or two of the entries on the register in the near future.

My request for 'Details of Officers' Expenses', (again under FoI) including fees and expenses for the Returning Officer was recently refused, (see 'The Dark Corners of County Hall). I have now requested an internal review - rather pointless I know, but a necessary step prior to a complaint to the ICO.
Who knows though, maybe the previous ICO complaint will have an effect and an internal review will uncover some other sort of 'administrative error'...anyway, here's the link;
Request for Internal Review - Details of Officers' Expenses

Friday, 10 February 2012

To power...and beyond...

Interesting judgement today which ruled that a Council has no power under the Local Government Act to hold prayers as part of a formal council meeting. Religion aside, what I found particularly interesting was the judge's comment;

"The council has on two occassions by a majority voted to retain public prayers at it's full meetings. But that does not give it power to do what it has no power to do".

How Carmarthenshire might react to such heathenism I'm not sure, what would happen to a councillor who stood by his or her conscience and didn't take part in the prayers? and maybe even failed to stand to attention for the X Factor entrance of the Chair and Chief Executive? I dread to think, I suppose they would be ostracised like a sickly goose.

Sometimes, to give such actions a veneer of democracy a vote is called and the councillors, bombarded with legal jargon and stern instructions that they need to 'update the constitution in line with current legislation' will pass the new rule with no real knowledge as to whether it's entirely legal or not. Who would know? Who would dare challenge it? Who becomes accountable if the council is exceeding it's powers under the Act?

If, as appears to be the case in Bideford, it was the 'prayer slot' itself which was legally flawed, it didn't matter how many times the more god-fearing members made a majority vote in favour, it was beyond the power of the council, as a civic body, to hold prayers anyway - in other words, the council were acting 'ultra vires'.

Recently, Carmarthenshire council officers have been busy changing the rules without even a passing glance to council members, (or no further than the closet loyalists anyway) I am, in case you were wondering, thinking of the entry procedures to the public gallery. Clearly the Council are a little mixed up, excuses waver between 'fire regulations', 'everybody does it' and 'we've had a problem'. Sadly, the full council has not had a chance to even examine if these new rules are legal, never mind debate whether this is their preferred method of welcoming visiting residents.

The undertaking not to film, is couched in quasi-legal terms 'I hereby undertake..." giving it the added weight of a vague legal threat. Refusal to sign should not prevent access, that cannot be lawful. The added requirement to provide an address is just plain baffling - I can only imagine it is just in case there's a fire, the mortal remains of the bloggers and observers locked in the public gallery could be returned to the next of kin.  However, according to the Democratic Services Manager he shreds (yes, personally shreds) all the signed undertakings immediately after the meeting.

This raises another question which I enquired about at Wednesday's meeting, which is whether, under the Council's entry in the Data Protection Register it has a right to collect and hold this information about visitors to the public gallery. I had a response, with the various pertinent entries angrily highlighted in red - fair enough, but if they are so sure they are entitled to hold this information why the immediate shredding exercise after the meeting?

A small point maybe but as I mentioned in my previous post, I was refused a photocopy of my signed undertaking from Wednesday's meeting. I got in touch with the Democratic Services Manager to ask why. To be fair, he went to some trouble, and stretches of the imagination, to provide me with an answer. I would reply but the gentleman informed me on Wednesday that he is aware of 'blogsites' so I will assume he will read it online. The email (or "E Mail") exchange is here;

To Democratic Services Manager,

Prior to yesterday's Council meeting I asked for a photocopy of the undertaking, the one which I had signed, the staff at reception said this would be fine and I offered to pick it up after the meeting.
When I returned to the desk I was told I was not allowed a copy, the staff could not give me a reason other than they were following orders.
Could you please explain why I couldn't have a copy? As I have previously been given a copy of an undertaking several months ago, and I offered to pay for this one, clearly it is not a matter of general practice to refuse such a request. The undertaking does, after all, contain my personal details.

I look forward to your prompt reply
Yours sincerely
Jacqui Thompson

and here's the reply, with my comments in blue;

Dear Mrs. Thompson

Thank you for your E Mail.

Unfortunately the staff working at reception yesterday were relatively inexperienced and should not have indicated that they would make a copy of the undertaking that you signed.
Oh, good idea. Blame the staff. Struggling to carry out these daft orders and deal with bewildered members of the public faced with an array of forms and 'rules' they must read and sign; and what on earth was said to the pleasant lady who had toddled off to get me a copy? 

You will be aware that the reception area is very busy and particularly so immediately prior to meetings of the Council and its Committees.
I have seen no more than about 8 people waiting in the reception area on a council meeting day, usually it's less. Before all this, everyone could enter through the external door of course and wouldn't have to loiter in the lobby waiting for the guards.

On such occasions the priority is to deal with visitors as they arrive in order to avoid delays and        inconvenience.
Really? there were no delays or inconvenience before the council themselves instigated these restrictions.

The Council does not provide members of the public with a free photocopying service and there is no photocopying facility readily available to reception staff on the ground floor.  The reception area has to be fully manned to avoid disruption and delays for visitors and to deal with the thousands of telephone calls they receive each day,  it is for these reasons that I informed the staff concerned that they should not provide you with a photocopy of your undertaking.
I offered to pay for it and I had given the staff three hours to provide me with the copy - to which they'd happily and pleasantly agreed. 'Fully manned'? Believe me, it's hardly the nerve centre of NASA.

You are quite right in stating that the undertakings include personal details of visitors and it is for this reason that I personally retain the copies and destroy them immediately after the conclusion of the meeting by shredding.
I have an image here of the gentleman surrounded by confettii-like clouds of shredded undertakings.

On your next visit to the Public Gallery in County Hall, if you require a copy of the undertaking that you sign, we will arrange for you to sign 2 copies of the undertaking with the intention of letting you retain one for your own use.
I beg your pardon?

This will be a far more efficient and economical way of complying with your request.”
Efficient and economical? Are we still 'reducing the burden of administration then'? Are we still on the same planet? And isn't it common practice to end an email with 'yours sincerely' or similar, rather than quotation marks?

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Meryl scrapes through...and the undertaking is back

In case you have not already heard, Meryl Gravell hung on to the leadership of the council in the vote of No Confidence by 5 votes. Proposed by Plaid's Peter Hughes Griffiths, over 30 voted against her. I was at the meeting (more of the entry nonsense, which has got worse, later) and there was a very full Chamber. The meeting started with a presentation of the Auditor's Improvement Plan, Meryl took the opportunity, given the main event to follow, to sing her own praises, referring to the auditors as our 'critical friends' - I think the word 'critical' is possibly unnecessary. I will not go into detail about the report, Y Cneifiwr has given an excellent summary here - Tea and Biscuits with the Auditor. One of the main concerns raised was that the report blamed 'decision making' by the councillors for stalling 'improvement' and increasing costs. This was of course an oblique reference to the two Llanelli Care Homes, saved from closure in a flash of democracy last February.

As I have said before, the lines of governance are blurred in Carmarthenshire, Councillors, it appears (apart from Executive ones) are not supposed to make decisions which represent the views of their constituents (my own councillor is not on the Executive Board, but wouldn't know what a 'constituent' was if one fell on him). This point was raised several times. We know all about blurry lines though
Meryl's supporters, Cllrs Madge, Scourfield, Wooldridge etc etc used every opportunity during this report and the report on Social Care standards (see this week's Private Eye in  previous post) which followed (the presenter of which expressed her need to 'triangulate evidence' - you get the drift of these things) to make admiring remarks about the Leader, and to suggest that if this silly nonsense (criticising the glorious leader) continued they could end up like Anglesey - too late for that chaps! You've past them long ago - all this was before the debate over the no confidence vote had even started. Meryl, at some point announced that people at some event or other she had attended were amazed that she was prepared to butter scones - like an ordinary person!

It continued in this ridiculous vein for some time, Meryl sat sulkily with what appeared to be a carefully practiced 'pained' expression whilst her close ally, Cllr Pam Palmer kept swivelling round to continually glare at various speakers.

Eventually, with time pressing on and the smell of boiled cabbage emanating from the canteen, we came to the vote - but not before the whole Chamber was plunged into constitutional disarray by an amendment, introduced, I believe, by Meryl's gang to thwart the vote. It was time for the Chief Executive to wade in and explain to the confused councillors in slow, steady, words of one syllable that they would have to vote on the amendment (part of it was disallowed anyway as it was a 'direct negative' to the Vote) before voting on Meryl.

After some discussion as to whether the amendment was even relevant - it referred to ChooseLife, the location of Meryl's speech - of course no one was criticising Choose Life, it was Meryl under fire not the centre - it was withdrawn. The only speaker, I believe who hit the nail on the head was Cllr Sian Caiach, (after she had been told, by the Chair to sit down and stop 'interfering with Members' which caused a ripple of amusement in the Gallery), she said the issue was not particularly about the ill chosen words the Leader had said that day it was, amongst other things, her relentless agreement with certain senior officers resulting in the erosion of democracy in the Council, recent changes to the constitution regarding petitions and motions being two recent examples. As I have said before, whether you agree with them or not, Cllrs Caiach and Arthur Davies are the only ones who can see the proceedings, and this officer-led council for the complete farce it is, (and boy, was it a farce today) and are regularly admonished for challenging it all. Cllr Caiach mentioned that the Chief Executive (with Meryl's blessing of course) had put her and Cllr Davies in 'special measures' and everything they ask or do has to be approved by him, she also brought up the fact that democracy was being further eroded by the Executive Board's decision to fund the Chief Executive's court battles against a resident. At this point, as you may well imagine, she was shouted down.

As the meeting had been going for two hours, lots of 'comfort breaks' were made, I have a feeling there may have been ulterior motives, at one point Meryl and the Chief Executive disappeared at the same time appearing back through different doors they exited from. Anyway, the vote was finally made, it was recorded (I also recorded it, just in case), and as I said, she survived by five votes.

I wonder whether a secret ballot would have produced a different result - I believe there may have been a few who were prepared to vote against her, had she not been able to see them do it.

There's nothing more to say other than the May elections can't come soon enough.

And, it's a pity no one filmed the meeting.

I must now mention the ridiculous nonsense in the lobby. You may remember the council recently announced they were dropping the unlawful undertaking, giving the unlikely reason that it would 'reduce the burden of administration' however, today it was back, with a vengeance, not only do we have to print our names, sign and date it, but a new addition is a requirement for our addresses. Things became heated, @towy71 refused to sign (See his post - Welcome to Ruritania) so was not allowed in, I challenged their authority under the DPA as to whether they could legally collect and hold the information (yes they can, apparently), someone else produced a cutting from today's Carmarthen Journal. An increasingly agitated democratic services manager, Mr C Davies was present so I asked him why it had been brought back in and he said it was because of comments on 'blogsites'.

As the meeting was almost underway, and we had the dual guard business to get through yet, I duly signed and asked for a photocopy to pick up after the meeting. At this point Mr Davies refused to believe I had signed the thing at all and was insisting I signed again - he eventually found proof that someone had taken it to be photocopied.

After the meeting I returned to the desk to retrieve my photocopy, I was told I was not allowed to have one - no explanation why, the chap behind the desk said he was 'only following orders'. I considered seeking some explanation from a higher authority but to be honest, the fresh air was calling by then, and I will ring Mr C Davies tomorrow.

Apart from the fact that the undertaking is unlawful, it is entirely useless - if someone starts filming, whether they've signed or not, they will be told to stop and/or leave the meeting and/or be arrested. End of story. Perhaps it is just me who thinks they are being incredibly petty over all this, but the damaging element in all this is preventing access to people who do not wish to sign. And is is so terrible to film a meeting?
Yesterday Carl Sargeant said he would 'encourage' filming by the public, Pembrokeshire decided to webcast their meetings...things are moving on...what the on earth is wrong with Carmarthenshire Council?

Meryl's 1%

Y Cneifiwr's blog has reminded me of the curious announcement today by Meryl Gravell as she fought for political life, in that the council staff were to get a 1% pay rise. Now, I could be wrong but it is the first I'd heard of it. I could also be wrong but it is very doubtful whether Cllr Gravell herself decided to offer this crumb. Only officers could decide a) whether it was financially feasible and b) it was possible in practical terms. Could it be a coincidence that Meryl's derogatory remarks about council staff, a mere couple of weeks ago triggered this very helpful offering from officers? Enabling her to announce it in the middle of a no confidence vote? Surely not....

Private Eye - In The Back - Disabled Care Carmarthenshire

Before I write about today's meeting I'd like to share this article in today's Private Eye. It is a case I have followed for some time, the incidents occured in 2005 - 2006, resulting in two damning Ombudsman reports against Carmarthenshire Council in 2009, one for the lady who was abused, and one for the whistleblower, Delyth Jenkins, who reported it. It was a shocking catalogue of incompetance and maladministration. I am just pleased that it has been finally publicised in this way. There are earlier posts on the blog. I hope the system has since improved and this will never happen again.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Filming and spending petitions back at the Senedd....

As this morning's discussion between the Minister (Carl Sargeant, Lab.) and the Petitions Committee concerning my petitions can be viewed in full on the archived webcast linked below, I will not go into great detail.

To summarise, the Minister re-iterated earlier comments that although he welcomes transparency, both the spending details publication and the filming of meetings were something he would leave to local authorities to consider. He would not issue statutory guidance. As for publishing spending details, the 'jury was still out' whether this was cost effective in terms of reduced FoI requests as well as the task of preparing documents for publication. He acknowledged that Monmouthshire and Newport Councils had started to publish details. He also acknowledged that he had contact with Eric Pickles' office (Con.) over these issues of transparency but reminded the Committee that each government had 'different policy agendas' to be 'respected'.

As for webcasting, again the Minister said it was up to local authorites but both he and the Committee welcomed yesterday's announcement by Pembrokeshire Council that it would stream meetings. He also said that as long as the meetings themselves were compliant with general policies (I am assuming he meant language, equalities etc) then webcasting would not compromise it. The practice of 'remote attendence' at council meetings for Members was currently under consideration by the Welsh Government, and the technology to enable this may also enable webcasting at the same time.

With regards to members of the public filming meetings he again said he would encourage it, but was not clear as to how this 'encouragement' could be put into practice, he was further pressed, given recent controversies, whether he would consider issuing some sort of guidance to local authorities over the issue. He seemed to feel that this was something for to the WLGA to take up but as far as he was concerned his message to local authorities was that they should embrace new technology, including third party filming and as long as recordings were not covert and unreasonable there shouldn't be a problem.This is how I understood it anyway.

After half an hour the committee ran out of time so will be further deliberating the petitions at the meeting scheduled for the 13th March.

Here's the link to Senedd TV; - when Senedd TV opens, click on Item 4 (Minister for Local Government Oral Evidence session). If this doesn't work scroll along the bar until the time shows '1hr 01min 35s' - the discussion on my two petitions lasts around half an hour.

Somewhere in all this is the question whether we, as members of the public have the right to film and record public council meetings. I believe that in the public interest we most definitely have, as long as it is not disrupting or impeding the proceedings, which by it's very peaceful nature, it doesn't. I suppose that is not a question for the Welsh Assembly nor local authorities but a matter of transparency for the taxpayer and citizen rights, and sometimes, that is up to us.

Whatever the eventual outcome, I would like to thank the petitions committee and other participants and respondents, for the time and consideration that they have given to my petitions and I look forward to the 13th March.

Here in Carmarthenshire, the 'task and finish' group considering e-government is due to report back to the Policy and Resources Scrutiny Committee on the 2nd April, I am assuming, as it was part of their remit, this will include the filming of council meetings, I'm sure they have had plenty of time anyway. The Council is still running a Poll on their website asking whether or not you would watch a meeting if it was streamed on the internet - once again, please vote yes!

Monday, 6 February 2012

The dark corners of County Hall....

Meanwhile...soldiering on....

I noticed that the Council's response to my FoI request for 'Details of Officers Expenses', initially made on the 19th December 2011, was running two weeks late so I sent a gentle reminder. Lo and behold, a response materialises. It was a refusal, including a refusal to detail the fees and expenses claimed by the Returning Officer.
The rather contrived reasons given for refusal appear to be the time and cost of responding, exceeded the limit allowed. The response is tortuous to say the least and the upshot of the whole thing appears to be that a) there are too many claims to track and, b) most of the claims are written on little bits of paper and stuffed into the various dark crevices of County Hall. At best, it's a muddle. The next course of action is to request a pointless internal appeal, a necessary step prior to reporting the matter to the Information Commissioner, including the lateness of the response. I'm not sure I have the will. I wonder if I could add it to my previous complaints already lodged with the ICO?

The 'filming council meetings' debate continues and I see today that Pembrokeshire County Council have decided to webcast meetings - great news.
Further to my previous post - 'Council abandon unlawful filming undertaking'  Carmarthenshire council has been tying itself in knots over it all, issuing a press release on their website and even commenting on my blog, or "blogsite" as they call it. 
The Assembly Petitions Committee meets tomorrow (Tuesday) at the Senedd and will be discussing my 'filming' and 'spending details over £500' petitions with the Minister of Local Government - I won't speculate as to the outcome but I shall be watching on Senedd TV at around 10.30 with great interest and reporting on any decisions made afterwards. It remains to be seen how many councils will eventually see the filming of their meetings as a measure of transparency rather than an invasion of privacy.
I sincerely hope that Carmarthenshire Council decide to webcast meetings because the argument that they can't afford it has recently been somewhat disproved, let's hope this 84 year old widow gets her disabled shower soon too.

I am unable to attend the meeting in Cardiff tomorrow but I am sure that the folk in County Hall, Carmarthen will be delighted to know I shall be in the public gallery on Wednesday at 10am for what promises to be a very interesting meeting. I think there'll be quite a turn out.
Fortunately most of us these days have a mobile phone...with which to Tweet, of course.

For information; Y Cneifiwr has been busy blogging and recently set up a poll.
And I've just noticed this tweet from my AM, Rhodri Glyn Thomas;
"@RhodriGlynPlaid Will be questioning Local Government Minister on Wednesday [8th] regarding Carmarthenshire Council's funding of Chief Exec libel court costs."

Friday, 3 February 2012

Notice; Libel case

As I have been the subject of considerable speculation this week I would like to clarify my position by referring readers to this article in today's Western Mail which includes a statement by Carmarthenshire County Council and confirmation that the Chief Executive has brough a counterclaim for libel against me;

and BBC Wales Online; Carmarthenshire Council funds Mark James libel fight with blogger 

and two articles from the South Wales Evening Post;

Council pays for legal battle

Previous post on this matter here

As this is the subject of court proceedings I cannot comment further.

Comments on this post will be strictly moderated.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Council abandon unlawful 'filming' undertaking

After nearly eight months of forcing members of the public, including children, to sign an unlawful undertaking, introduced as an 'operational decision' by officers, it looks like they've finally realised their mistake. It was, as if you need reminding, to agree to abide by a non-existent council policy against filming/recording meetings before being allowed into the public gallery. I was also forced to sign one before I was released from police custody last June - there was nothing 'legal' about it nor was it a matter for the police.
All we need now is for a public apology to all who were forced to sign, the doors to be opened and the guarded 'escort' to the public gallery to be ditched - we'll see whether that happens at next week's full council meeting.

A recent Freedom of Information request was made by a member of the public (not me), the day after the last full council meeting. You will note their use of the word 'goodwill', unfortunately we cannot rely on the goodwill of the Council to be open, fair and democratic, so I'll leave that one up to you.
Anyway, here's the response (my emphasis);

Dear *****,

I refer to your request for information, which was received on 12 January, 2012 and has been dealt with under the Freedom of Information Act 2000.
You asked the following questions in relation to the public signing an undertaking before being allowed into some or all council meetings:

 1. a copy of the current version(s), and which meetings it (or they) are used at

 2. an indication of the established and dated procedure for, and logging of, storage and/or secure disposal, under Data Protection Act requirements, of these undertakings after events

 3. regarding these undertakings, your internal email and/or memo records that reasonably fully describe the perceived necessity for them, legal basis for them, drafts produced, previous versions used (with their dates of use), and all procedures for their administrative roll-out.

The Council has in fact discontinued the protocol of asking members of the public to sign an undertaking not to film or record meetings of the Council or its committees.

However, the Council has yet to decide on whether to permit filming and has established a task and finish Group of members of the Policy & Resources Scrutiny Committee to consider the issue of filming/audio recording as well as webcasting of meetings. In the meantime, the Council relies on the public's goodwill to comply with the request not to film or record the proceedings of meetings.

Copies of the signed undertakings that were previously asked for prior to attendance at meetings have been destroyed securely.

In view of the above, please confirm whether you still require a response to questions 1 and 3.

Yours sincerely
FoI Officer, Carmarthenshire County Council

Update 11am;

County Councillor Sian Caiach has issued this statement below to the local paper, let's hope the rest of the council agree with her sentiments;

"As you may have read today in Jacqui's blog Carmarthenshire Council have abandoned their policy of asking people to sign an undertaking not to film meetings before being allowed to watch their meetings. This happened after a FOIA request challenging the legality of these actions. There is no policy on filming, as they admit. A group is looking into it but no decision either way has ever been taken.

This means that Mark James called the police to arrest Jacqui Thompson without any reason whatsoever.  At the last full council meeting I tried to present an apology to Jacqui Thompson on behalf of the council but was prevented from doing so by the Chair, This admission that the council has no policy on filming confirms that this apology was quite appropriate and I will present it once more at the next meeting.

This lady was arrested, kept in the cells for several hours and signed a declaration not to ever film again before being allowed to leave. She has had the humilation of being led away in handcuffs and since then our council have persisted in pretending that there was some legal reason why filming could not be permitted, giving the impression that other members of the public would be treated in a similar way.

This has been a shameful episode for Carmarthenshire County Council and I am glad it is over. We have absolutely nothing to hide and surely our electorate have the right to freely access our meetings and record them if they so wish. We already could produce an audio record of proceedings from our existing sound system if we wish to have a record of what is said for ourselves, it would be nice to have a video system which we could stream online. In the meantime please come and watch us. you will no longer have to queue up and sign a form and if you do decide to film, no-one will call the police to take you away".

Cllr Sian Caiach

I hope people will join me in the public gallery on the 8th February, and if you wish, bring your mobile phone. Caebrwyn.