Monday 9 July 2012

Should Carmarthenshire be Twinned with Barnet?

Hopefully some of you occasionally click the blog links on the right hand side of this page. If you haven't already, I suggest you have a look at the Barnet bloggers, notably Mrs Angry's and Mr Mustard's. They, along with others in the London borough set something of an example to the rest of us about the role of citizens bringing the local authority to account. The similarities with Carmarthenshire Council have often been noted and it has been suggested that a twinning arrangement could be set up whereby senior officers and members could exchange positions for a week or two to bring each other up to date with the latest methods of withholding information and avoiding scrutiny by members of the public.

Of course Barnet has a slight difficulty in that it is beholden to publish spending details over £500 and, under the English Public Audit Act, has to provide an inspection period every year for the electorate to view all the accounts. Carmarthenshire council, of course, doesn't have to worry about any of that nonsense, no spending details are published and the last inspection period was a couple of years ago - maybe there will be one this year, I don't know. (I have emailed the Council to ask, I'm eagerly awaiting their reply and a personal invitation to inspect). Not that Barnet is any more welcoming to armchair auditors than our friends down the road and their recent trip to study the accounts (remember this includes receipts, invoices etc) was reminiscent of a trip to view the register of member's interests undertaken by 'Mrs T' last year.(see The Sacred Parchments)

Also reminiscent is the way the Barnet bloggers were treated, rather like suspected terrorists, being marched around the building and escorted to the loo and back as well as being faced with material which was so redacted it was unreadable. A few week's ago a lady was ordered to leave a Barnet council meeting for filming the proceedings by an overly secretive Chair who had momentarily forgotten that such basic democratic rights were now welcome in the Chamber (credit for this move also goes to the bloggers).
All sounds very familiar doesn't it? Of course we have a few added extras here such as the sudden necessity for visitors to the public gallery to provide their names and addresses which serves no other purpose than to enable Carmarthenshire Council officers to monitor who's observing proceedings and of course the escorted march to the gallery.
Here's an email from the Head of Legal to one of the Assistant Chief Execs dated 9th June 2011 (the day after the #daftarrest);

"I'd appreciate a chat about the steps which will need to be taken to ensure that Mrs Thompson [that's me, middle aged lady with phone] is not allowed to gain access past the card entry point leading up to the Council gallery. I've discussed with Colin [Democratice Services Manager] and hopefully this is something which reception staff, working with Colin and possibly caretaking staff can manage between them. I've discussed these measures with the Police (they came to see me yesterday afternoon) who can assist in case of difficulty. We will also need to close the side door to County Hall nearest the castle because it gives direct access to the gallery. Mark suggests we limit that to Council and Planning committee days"

Of course by the following meeting, the officer-only 'operational decisions' bits of paper to sign etc were all neatly in place.

When it comes to releasing information, Carmarthenshire is particularly reluctant to divulge it's secrets, my recent request for correspondence between the Council and the Towy Community Church was refused because it would 'exceed the cost limit' - I've asked again, and had to narrow my request due to the apparent enormous volume of material. I could have argued that £1.4m of taxpayers money to build an evangelical bowling alley exceeded the cost limit as well, but I didn't bother. Other requests which have 'exceeded the cost limit' have included release of spending details. I don't think Carmarthenshire council quite 'get's' the whole concept of public accessibility to information.

The issue of the cost of answering Freedom of Information requests is something of a hot topic at the moment and I read an interesting tale from Nottingham Council over the weekend where a couple of council leaders were screeching about the enormous cost (Nottingham Council is also the only council in England not to publish it's spending details), alarming figures of £500k and £600k were bandied about which, (it goes without saying) prompted a Freedom of Info request. The actual cost, it transpired, was around £64,000 a year. The Nottingham response is interesting as it appears that the same amount of time is spent on Case Administration as is spent on Reputation Impact Assessment, the latter always being the overriding priority here in Carmarthenshire. I think I may have to ask our own County Hall for their FoI figures and costs but a refusal is always possible on the grounds of national security...or something, it would be interesting to compare the figures with the budget for the Council's over productive Department of Spin.
Read the Nottigham tale (with a link to the FoI response) here;

Update 10th July
Regarding Carmarthenshire Council's figures for FoI and PR, I have now asked (through FoI);


Mrs Angry said...

do you know, I think we should perhaps organise a blogger's twinning, complete with civic function, awards, and exchange of gifts ... some Welsh cheese, and maybe some novelty cufflinks for Mr Mustard? Not sure what we have to offer here in Barnet ... a pair of Metropolitan police handcuffs and a One Barnet t shirt, maybe?

barnetonian said...

Ha! Nice idea. I now live in north Wales but Barnet is my home town.

I suggest that visitors should en masse decline to give their names and addresses. Is it a policy? If so, it needs challenging I'd suggest.

I once attended a council meeting at which an incinerator was being discussed. I was dressed in a witch outfit and masked up after a hallowe'en protest outside. I was told I had to remove my mask in the council chamber or I would be asked to leave. "We can't have people in here when we don't know who they are." I said I'd be happy to remove my mask if the security man would be kind enough to show me the policy that dictates this course of action. At this point, he leant over me conspiratorially and whispered, pointing at his boss: "I don't think there is one. He just told me to say that to you."

As a result I sat sweltering under the mask in the overheated council chamber for several hours, paying the price of resistance!

Cneifiwr said...

How about a nice gift of Gwendraeth cockles for the Tory councillors of Barnet? Currently going cheap because of a few unfortunate bacterial contamination issues, but, sssshhh, I won't tell them if you don't.

Otherwise the main growth industry in Carmarthenshire appears to be lawsuits.

We're even exporting them to London now!

Tessa said...

God this is hilarious! Cneifiwr's cocckles suggestion has nearly had me off my chair!

Mr Mustard said...

Mr Mustard still has one Mr Mustard limited edition lady's t-shirt and one man's t-shirt available for an exchange of blogger gifts. He does like cheese especially from goats and sheep milk but sadly is a bit of a ruffian and prefers double button to cufflinks. He will never make audit partner at Grant Thornton unlike Mrs Angry who knows how to dress.

Mrs Angry said...

Yes, Y Cneifiwr, kind of you to offer us a taste of your cockles. I imagine they are rather salty, are they? Our Tory councillors will be thrilled anyway, especially the ladies. And quite a few of the gents.

Mr Mustard is not, like Mrs Angry, an experienced auditor,of course but he is quite good at adding up, unlike Mrs Angry. You don't need to add up, of course, to be a local authority auditor, just sign your name on the bottom of every page, with your eyes closed.

Barnetonian, lucky escape, eh? Your evening in the mask: did you get invited to the councillors' after meeting party? I hear they can be a bit wild.

caebrwyn said...

Thank you all!!

@Mrs Angry
Mrs Evans is getting very exited about the ceremony...perhaps Mr Mustard should be warned that she particularly admires a man who knows his cheeses...

Tessa said...

Is Mrs Angry really an auditor? Are you Mrs Angry? If so, I shall eat my words about auditors (excluding me but then I'm an ex-auditor) being ball-less wimps! I've had a few reads of your blog via Caebrwyn's links, and your (metaphorical) pair are like flippin' Spacehoppers from where I'm sitting!

Tessa said...

...and Mrs Angry's interpretation of the cockles gift, screamingly funny too, I guess is made in ignorance of the prsss report in Western Mail 3 July 2012 "COCKLE-GATHERING has been banned in Carmarthenshire's three rivers estuary after shellfish samples failed bacteria tests". From what Mrs Angry says, I guess any interest in Cneifiwr's gift offer by aforementioned councillors will evaporate pretty quickly now.

Mrs Angry said...

Tessa: I am head of armchair auditing at Grant Thornton, didn't you know?

My pair of what? I do have a full figure,in some respects, it is true.

I fail to see what is funny in my reference to Y Cneifiwr's cockles, salty or otherwise. Personally I am unable to swallow any form of seafood, as I am allergic. Not sure about sheepshearers. Never tried one.