Thursday 19 April 2012

Carmarthenshire Council and the Towy Community Church on BBC Dragon's Eye

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I have followed the relationship between Carmarthenshire Council and the small evangelical organisation, the Towy Community Church for the past couple of years. I do not want to repeat everything I have said and will provide some links at the end of this post. The main concern has been the readiness of the council to promise £1.4m of public money to fund a bowling alley, auditorium (a church), debt counselling etc to a group with links (now removed) to the discredited Mercy Ministries who advocated, amongst other dubious treatments, exorcism for anorexia. They had planned to establish a Mercy Ministry in Carmarthen. The council have cut funding to secular organisations including Citizen's Advice and yet have funded an organisation who use an evangelical umbrella debt service, Christians Against Poverty who themselves were recently dropped by Advice UK (again secular) who felt that proselytising through offering prayer as part of the service was not compatible with their constitution.

A public body such as the council has a duty to operate with a strong ethos of equality; their 'partners' the Towy Community Church, which comes under the umbrella of the Evangelical Alliance, have a rather different view of 'equality', with many similarities to the more extreme evangelical organisations one finds in the USA.

Much of the council decision making has been taken behind closed doors and tonight, Dragon's Eye attempted to get some answers. I have also tried to get some answers and await a reply from the Wales Audit Office who I contacted back in February.

Dragon's Eye asked to speak to the Leader of the Council Cllr Meryl Gravell, she would not return their calls (she publicly, and worryingly, stated that she hoped this organisation would ease the pressure on the social care budget), Plaid Cymru council leader, Peter Hughes Griffiths and Kevin Madge, Labour leader, also refused to be interviewed. The Chief Executive, Mark James, joined with the council leaders who approved the funding by stating 'it would not be appropriate to comment on this matter during the local elections', I am not sure why, I would have thought some clarity over questionable council spending decisions would be exactly what the electorate would want - but perhaps, rather like the Taro 9 programme concerning abuse in a council run care home, we would not like what they had to say, and no amount of spin would make it sound better.
The Pastor of the church, Mark Bennett also declined to comment.
Cllr Sian Caiach, who opposed the funding did express her concerns, as did Angela Burns AM who mentioned the recent AWEMA scandal and the necessity for open scrutiny.

(Paragraph removed)

BBC iPlayer;
BBC article; Towy Community Church; Unison and politicians funding concerns
(please use the searchbox on the right for further posts)

Wednesday 18 April 2012

Meryl and the Election Bandwagon

With a spectacular piece of election bandwagon jumping, Council Leader Meryl Gravell has announced that if her administration returns to power (god forbid) they will pilot the webcasting of council meetings, I wonder how her buddy Cllr Pam Palmer and leader of the 'Independent group' is coping with the idea, she didn't even want audio recordings. Strangely, there was no mention of this on the agenda for the Exec Board meeting where Meryl made her announcement, perhaps it came under 'urgent election business', still, she slipped it in somehow. It would seem that webcasting, currently being looked at by a group of councillors (for nearly a year) has been deliberately postponed until after the election. Still, both the Lib Dems and Plaid have said similar and I am pleased it is still on the cards. There is a possibility, of course, that I myself might be there to put my two pennyworth in (have been very busy canvassing by the way), whatever happens I shall also be watching to see whether an attempt to ban filming by the public is quietly dropped in during the AGM constitution tweaking. Perhaps she might like to jump on another bandwagon and promise that her administration will reverse their other decision to fund the Chief Executive's libel case, which would possibly leave enough cash to pay for webcasting for the next twenty years.
(I was asked for my views, which appear in the article)

Update 20th July; Article in theWestern Mail;

Friday 13 April 2012

Plaid Cymru back an Independent candidate?

According to fellow local candidate, Cllr Tom Theophilus, Plaid Cymru have not put a candidate forward in this ward as they are perfectly happy with him and hope he will continue; they are entitled to their opinion of course. So, are Plaid actively hoping he'll win? Surely they wouldn't endorse another candidate, particularly one so loyal to the current ruling Independent Party, I thought Plaid were in opposition? 

This is what he says in his leaflet;

"The Llandovery and District branch of Plaid Cymru would like to declare that they had no input with the nomination of Plaid candidate to stand at the May 3rd election, confirming they are satisfied with the services given by Tom over the last 36 years to the above communities and wish it to continue"

I'd be interested to hear from Plaid.

UPDATE 14th April; I have now heard from the Plaid Cymru office who have issued this immediate response;

A spokesperson for Plaid Cymru said:

"A candidate for Plaid Cymru was due to contest the election in the Cilycwm Ward up until a few weeks ago when the candidate had to withdraw for personal reasons.  Plaid Cymru only endorses candidates for election to Carmarthenshire County Council who stand in the name of Plaid Cymru - The Party of Wales"

As there is not a Plaid candidate standing, it appears that Cllr Theophilus is trying to obtain the votes of Plaid supporters by claiming he was backed, in some way, by the party. This is clearly wrong and I hope Plaid insist he withdraws this statement as a matter of urgency and in fairness to the other candidates.

Incidentally, there is another statement in Cllr Theophilus' leaflet, unrelated to the above, which is currently being investigated by the Police.

Wednesday 11 April 2012

'Twitter's not a good thing for politics' says Cllr Kevin Madge

As election fever continues apace here in Carmarthenshire (well, sort of) and Caebrwyn's posters, carefully laminated with sellotape withstand the weather and the opposition, some interesting statements are emerging. You may remember the twitter row, covered by Cneifiwr's blog, where a Labour candidate, Shahid Hussein was reprimanded over offensive tweets. Each party duly condemned his actions but the most worrying comment came from Labour leader, (and deputy leader of the council), Kevin Madge, hoping for re-election himself;

"I have pointed out to him that Twitter is dangerous and it's not something I support. I don't use it and I do not want any of our political candidates to use it - it's only young people and not a good thing to use for politics"
(Carmarthen Journal)

Oh dear. No, perhaps not for Mr Hussein at the moment and I can't imagine how Mr Madge would fit enough tributes to Leader Meryl and the Chief Exec into 140 characters. For the rest of the modern world, including politicians, and despite the occassional hiccup, it works just fine. Let's hope, if re-elected he's not given responsibility for 'Modernising Local Government', currently held by the equally inappropriate Cllr Pam Palmer.
(Cllr Madge may be interested to know his comments have provided some amusement on twitter today, he's even been compared to late Mary Whitehouse)

Looks like Cilycwm may have it's own election row brewing as news is reaching me that one of my opponents in the election, (the current Councillor) Tom Theophilus is resorting to desperate measures by referring to myself, in less than complimentary terms, in his election leaflet. I also hear that he has come up with some legal jargon about something or other 'being disclosed in the public interest'. After having been, er,  represented by Cllr Theophilus for 30 years, I find his sudden acquisition of fine legal knowledge and judgement puzzling, perhaps he's had help from somewhere. More to follow.

Friday 6 April 2012

Little boxes (Part 2)

Readers may remember my recent efforts to extract the expenses details of thirteen senior officers from a reluctant Carmarthenshire council. A contorted refusal was issued on the grounds that to retrieve the information would exceed the cost limit. An internal review yielded a similar reply (don't they always?) The council's response was also late, exceeding the legal time limit. The WhatDoTheyKnow link to the full thread of the request is here.

I took my complaint to the ICO who decided that, given the council's present 'system', it would exceed the cost limit to  provide the information. The full response will be on the ICO website soon and I will provide a link for those who wish to view the details, there were issues concerning the 'legibility of the handwriting' and whether the forms were at 'the front of a box or at the back of a box', you get my drift.

The ICO did find against the council for their late response.

The council had offered to disclose a sprinkling of details which had been logged here and there through the ResourceLink system. I didn't make a request for this as I wanted all the information, not part of it, to be made public. I may request this in the future.

As I said after the intial refusal, the information is stored in various boxes under a dickensian filing system scattered around County Hall, reminiscent of my trek through the corridors of County Hall to view the dusty ledgers of the Members' register of interest closely chaperoned by the Head of 'democratic' services (see The Sacred Parchments) My request for the register of officer's interests also required a nudge from the ICO to the Council; the nudge produced an extra 51 pages which had been 'overlooked' during my initial request and the internal review, 46 of those pages concerned the Chief Executive.

The Council needs to understand that, despite efforts by the Tory government to restrict the use of FoI (by, for example, trying to charge for requests), it's not going to go away. The archaic 'systems', the secretive attitude and selective disclosure to avoid bad press, all needs addressing and kicking into the present day. It's about time the senior management of this council realised that there's a general public out there paying their wages, who would like to know and have every right to know, not only how their money is spent but what hidden 'extras' they are paying for too.

Thursday 5 April 2012

Candidate List - Carmarthenshire Council

With every seat contested it looks like an interesting election ahead. Pleased to see four standing against Meryl Gravell, and three trying to oust ex-chairman Ivor Jackson.

As for me in the Cilycwm ward, my two opponents are the current veteran councillor, Tom Theophilus and a Tory.

I am also a candidate for the Llanwrda Community Council, there are only three of us, and eight seats. I was going to put a link to the full Carmarthenshire Community Councillor candidate list until I noticed that the majority of the candidates were listed as 'electrical retailers' - maybe Currys have planned a coup to take over Carmarthenshire's parishes....? (this list has now been removed from the Council website...and will hopefully be corrected. Just as well these elections aren't held very often...)

Update 10th April - List of Community Council Candidates now back up, electrical retailers reduced to one; )

12th April - list of uncontested Town and Community Councils and those elected;

Y Cneifiwr is busy providing his readers with a remarkably accurate ward-by-ward analysis, the first instalment is here; Those County Council elections - Y Cneifiwr looks at the form
...and the second instalment, equally perceptive, can be found here; Council election tour - Carmarthen to Glanaman where you will of course, find a brief but interesting stop at Cilycwm...
and the third leg, from Gorslas to Laugharne....4th.....Llandeilo to Llansteffan

STOP PRESS....CARMARTHENSHIRE COUNCIL BRINGS BACK HANGING....I am a bit concerned to read in a forthcoming council report that a "new and fun" element; a 'life-sized gallows" has been added to the tourist centre in the walls of County Hall...presumably to cut out the expense and bother of calling the police  to deal with members of the public with 'camera-phones'.....

Tuesday 3 April 2012

Transparency debate back at the Senedd...and an AM insults of the people of Wales!

Interesting debate a couple of weeks ago in a plenary session at the Senedd concerning local government transprency, essentially the filming of meetings, by the public, and publication of spending details. As my name cropped up several times in the transcript, I watched the whole thing on Senedd TV. Two AMs, Janet Finch-Saunders and Suzy Davies, presented very good, and very well argued cases for both, I was quite impressed;

"...Last year, we were all horrified by the images of Jacqui Thompson being handcuffed and marched to a police car. She was then detained at the police station for two hours. Her crime was to film a public meeting of Carmarthenshire council on her camera phone. A flat ban on the filming of public council meetings is hardly in the spirit of openness and transparency. Given the lack of consistent publication of council expenditure, filming council meetings may be the only way for some council tax payers to get timely information about how their local authority is spending their money....."

"...As there is, perhaps understandably, little appetite among councils to broadcast their meetings, and the Minister is not minded to place a statutory obligation upon them to do so, filming by citizen commentators seems to be the most sensible approach. We should not be dragging away the Jacqui Thompsons of this world in handcuffs; we should be supporting and encouraging them..."

Here's a link to the archived meeting if you want to watch the debate, scroll along to 2 hours 18 minutes in; 

As I have said, perhaps I am naive but I do not understand why any of this is a party political matter, I am aware that it forms part of Eric Pickle's transparency agenda but surely it should be cross party? Or is that impossible in politics these days? To be fair, I see that the Plaid manifesto for Carmarthenshire has "allowing filming and recording of council meetings" as a 'principle it will adhere to when implementing policy', they also promise to get rid of the Carmarthenshire News; I think they recognise the value of transparency. It goes without saying that these issues, including stamping out spin, also form part of Caebrwyn's election manifesto too and no, I'm not a 'closet' anything.

I am not sure where the Labour party stands on this, at the same plenary meeting there was a shocking statement from Jenny Rathbone AM, who obviously believes that the Welsh people are too thick to understand anything more complicated than tabloid headlines;

"..I am saying that, in order to be accountable, information has to be presented in a format that is understandable to people. You have to bear in mind that most people need it in the format that is presented by the The Sun or the Daily Mirror, because if you simply present it as closely written lines along the lines of what The Times newspaper used to look like, people will not read it and will not be any further along in understanding what their council is up to..."

What a patronising statement, it beggars belief that an Assembly Member can stand up in the Senedd and calmly insult the intelligence of the people of Wales.

The Minister, Carl Sargeant again stays on the fence, reluctant to be seen to 'micromanage' local authorities. As you may be aware there is another pressing issue which should be troubling the Minister, something which could cost the Carmarthenshire taxpayer dear, so perhaps he should be wondering just how far certain local authorities are prepared to go to stifle local government transparency...and come off that fence.

Monday 2 April 2012

The Council, Twitter and Spin

I was almost heartened to see this promising tweet from the Council press office on Friday;

"@CarmsCCPress.....making real efforts to improve communication on social networks, feedback and questions welcome"

So, today, I asked a few reasonable questions via Twitter;

 - can you tell me where I can find the latest agenda and miutes for the #carmarthenshire Local Service Board please?

 - I seem to be unable to leave comments on the council facebook page - this does not 'improve communication', please rectify

 - how much revenue is raised towards the Carmarthenshire News through private sector advertising?

 - Your twitter account does not appear to follow any residents of #carmarthenshire other than journalists, why is this?

 - anyone there?

then I had a response;

@caebrwyn sorry we don't have staff resources to respond to all comments on FB, please contact

I am not sure if they knew whether they were on Facebook or Twitter or were referring to my FB comment. Anyway, I replied;

not all comments require response - but I am sure #carmarthenshire council values residents' opinions, please enable comments [actually, on closer inspection, it seems it could be just Caebrwyn who can't comment]

No response. But during this brief, half an hour long, one way conversation, reminiscent of the #pambot fiasco the press office managed to find the 'staff resources' to publish eight press releases on the council website - I mentioned it;

@CarmsCCPress you do have the staff resources to publish 8 press releases on your website today though?

...but again, no response. Perhaps I'll try again tomorrow. I have to conclude that there must have been a youngster there on work experience last Friday, monitoring the press office 'social networking' skills, who made the unforgivable error of 'engaging' with the rabble. It will be interesting to see if any 'new' councillors decide to tweet from the Chamber after May 3rd. (This debate still rumbles around the UK, interesting blogpost here from journalist @davidhiggerson)

The council seems to be pretty keen these days to emphasise that the council rag, the Carmarthenshire News is a by-product the Local Service Board (LSB). The LSB of course is another talking shop for senior managers and officials of the said same council this time with the police, health board etc execs thrown in  who meet, apparently, every two months. And, judging by the content of the Community News, each separate Department of Spin and Waste is tasked with contributing a 'good news' article, regardless to accuracy (and, I am sure, approved by County Hall) and coughing up a few quid for the privilege.

We don't know what they talk about as there are no agendas or minutes being published.

Set up a couple of years ago through Welsh Government funding to streamline the delivery of services through the collaboration of executive managers....blah blah blah... Not surprisingly, a quick glimpse at the LSB website suggests that churning out spin is as important to the LSB as it is to the council, and, judging by the entire content, style and tone, funding propaganda is number one priority. It features 'LSB TV', clearly the renamed 'Carmarthen TV', a project I thought was long forgotten, and the website itself is like a mini version of the council's, with even more broken links and no useful information whatsoever.

Older readers may remember the furore about the proposed 'Carmarthen TV' internet channel a couple of years ago (2009), (don't confuse it with any attempt to film meetings!) which naturally involved exempt reports etc which, as I pointed out at the time (including here ), hardly needed the executive rubber stamp and promise of cash, as it had all been decided several months previously at a LSB meeting. Questions were raised in the Senedd about whether this was appropriate use of funds, apparently it wasn't, but, as we know, Carmarthenshire council takes a dim view of such advice. I had a quick look at a couple of the barely functioning, and ageing videos, I didn't last long, the Leader, the Chief Executive and an Executive from Simons Group - the "key players" of the regeneration programme for Carmarthen were 'interviewed' by two school pupils (who, I add, were fine presenters).  As you can imagine it was painful viewing, peppered with adverts for Debenhams, Frankie and Benny's, New Look etc etc - I didn't make it to the end....The whole thing definitely had nothing to do with improving the lot of the ordinary resident; the stated (sort of) aims of the LSB.

The situation is getting worse, the council's priority for image and press control, whether it be through their own press office which is mysteriously incorporated into their own company SirgarPR; their ban on staff talking to the press without prior approval and a chaperone; or the more sinister invasion of our own local independent press by County Hall, has to be brought to an end.
'Non-Statutory services', we are told, such as public toilets, museums and post-16 school transport are eligible for the chop - So where does that leave the endless stream of patronising PR seeping from all corners of County Hall...."statutory" and top priority! according to the council....