Thursday, 29 December 2011

A few thoughts...(while it's quiet)

...on cuts...allowances...churches..etc
As the thrills and spills of the council's budget cuts (previously here and here) is played out over the next few weeks there is little point in further speculation at the moment, I'm sure there'll be a few interesting meetings ahead, starting with the Executive Board on the 4th January. I have a small wager with my cynical self as to which proposal is actually a PR 'plant' and will be subject to a magnanimous last minute u-turn which we should all be jolly grateful for, currently my money's on the 'museum closures'. A sprinkling of 'efficiency' suggestions can be found in the minutes of various recent scrutiny committee meetings; for example, reducing the temperature of the swimming pools and charging schools to use them. Brrr. Whatever transpires, I predict that one eye will be kept on the election in May.

May 2012 will also see the adoption of the latest report from the Independent Remuneration Panel for Wales. (link here, it's PDF and 70 pages). The Councillors' Allowance will now be known as a salary (or senior salary for those further up the greasy rungs) The new wording suggests that this is something to be earned. The IRPW will use it's powers to tell councils what to pay it's members and due to the fact that the Council's website is about as useful as a chocolate fireguard I am unable to predict the likely outcome on Carmarthenshire's Members, suffice to say that if there is any reduction in cost to the Council taxpayer it's unlikely to be much more than the cost of a full tank of fuel in the Council limo. The 'search' facility for individual councillors allowances/expenses regularly disappears for weeks at a time, and is currently offline. Other tables and lists are outdated and lack detail. The useless website is another story though.
Interestingly, claims for food/subsistence within the county boundaries will no longer be allowed; so a situation when one's own local Member is spending lunchtime relaxing in the local club tucking into a tax-payer funded steak dinner at roughly the exact time as one of his constituents is being thrown into a police cell for observing that morning's council meeting, shouldn't happen anymore...

Whilst I am in a thoughtful mood, I must make a couple of further observations regarding the Towy Community Church and, of course, Carmarthenshire Council's generosity towards this organisation. I notice, from the Church website that the Debt Counselling Service will be run 'in partnership' with 'Christians Against Poverty'. Nothing wrong with a religious organisation helping people out of poverty, the Salvation Army has been doing it for years and I suppose, unless you are so inclined, it's best to avoid an organisation with 'Christian' in the title. However, we know our Council thinks it's all a brilliant idea, to the extent of £1.4m in fact. What is slightly disturbing is that until earlier this year CAP was under the umbrella of the national (and entirely secular) debt service, Advice UK. Advice UK decided that some of the methods used by CAP were 'incompatible' with their constitution, namely that prayer was part of the debt advice. Advice UK did not think, and neither do I, that prayer is much help when the bailiffs are knocking at the door, to be honest, the lord is very unlikely to provide. Neither is it appropriate, in my opinion, to evangelise when people are at a low ebb even if it is a tried and tested method of gaining new recruits; free advice is fine but there should be no strings attached, nor promotion of a particular faith. Perhaps it is worth mentioning that CAP is also a 'partner', and associated with, the Mercy Ministries.
The National Secular Society has an interesting article on such matters; Praying in order to obtain social services is an indication of things to come. But before I incur the wrath of the evangelicals, I must emphasise once more that it is not religious beliefs of any description I have issue with but the involvement of the County Council; with local (non-religious) charities facing cuts in council help over the next three years and Council Tax going up by possibly 4%, prayers at the bowling alley may be all we have left....

Afterthought; Carmarthenshire Council are proposing to cut £32,000 in grants from the Citizens Advice Bureau over the next three years (£14,000 next year). Jeezus.



Tessa said...

Excellent post as ever!

Anonymous said...

Good post. One extra thing to watch out for in the new year will be the concerted moaning by the Chief Constable and the chief execitive about the workings of the FOI act.

You will recall the Chief constable was in the Carmarthen Journal a few weeks ago complaining about the time some requests take up.

Clearly the act has been mis-used by a small minority but without it we wouldnt have known about corrupt politicians, the fact that our local authority spent so much on private investigators or indeed that the Chief Constable and his deputy claimed thousands of pounds in bonuses at a time when the force is implementing redundancies and closures.

The FOI act must be here to stay and not be allowed to wither because those in charge fear it.

caebrwyn said...

Indeed, the FoI Act must be protected - and further widened if possible. I believe the moaning has already started from the council (see they are clearly getting more and more requests.
It is unavoidable that there will be some misuse, I also think that the more bizarre (and much publicised) requests can probably be answered in seconds. The danger is that the authorities will attempt to create further unnecessary exemptions.
re the cost issue; A blogger recently asked Notts City Council for info related to filming/recording meetings - the response was accompanied with the cost of the FoI - £103.35 to be exact - I presume the purpose of this is to deter 'frivoulous' questions, though such requests can be very difficult to define. It also serves the purpose of irritating the hard pressed taxpayer who may then view requesters/journalists/bloggers as 'wasting' public cash.
Carmarthenshire Council need to publish far more information online, the dusty files of the Member's Interests was a classic example of an archaic system. A Disclosure log on their website would be a simple task and would avoid duplicate requests.
In the end I would far rather have an effective FoI office and transparency than yet another edition of the Council rag (and that is just one example of CCC mis-placed priority)