Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Today's meeting - Democracy dies another death...

Back to County Hall today for the monthly instalment of 'how not to do democracy', or the full council meeting if you prefer.

I needn't remind readers that the entry ritual remains in place and for the second time I witnessed a 15 year old being forced to sign an unlawful legal undertaking not to film. His mother was with him and asked why he had to, as she was responsible for him, enquiries were made to a higher authority by reception staff but 'orders were orders' and he had to sign. This cannot be right. The lad happens to be doing a project on 'Democracy' so I imagine it will give him an alternate view of the concept.

Also signing in was Jonathan Edwards MP who was there for the main event - whether Plaid would manage to shoehorn in a debate over the Sainsbury's row despite the Council refusing to allow the motion to be placed on the Agenda, because it didn't have a date (no other reason naturally).
Do you think they managed it, even with a member of their group Chairing the meeting? Not on your life, not even with three attempts.

Anyway the meeting kicked off with the usual parish notices and congratulations passed on to Cllr Roy Llewellyn for becoming Chair of the Mid and West Wales Fire Authority, as vice-chair last year he coined in an extra £7278.96, as Chair it should be even more generous.

The Chair also welcomed the MP, Mr Edwards who was in the public gallery, there was no welcome for the brave members of the public locked in there though, there never is of course.

Cllr Caiach was the first to get short shrift as she disputed the previous meeting's minutes. There was no mention of her request to make an audio recording of the meeting, nor the refusal she was naturally given. She asked again, and enquired whether there were any rule in the Standing Orders to prevent her from filming or recording. Clearly this was not up for discussion, as there is no rule of course, and she was reminded that the Policy and Resources committee were discussing these unpleasant matters next week.

The non-controversial motion on educational standards slipped through, uncontroversially. The only slight thorn was a comment, again from Cllr Caiach that with all the spending on school buildings maybe a little though and extra money should go towards actual teaching.

The main item was the 'Improvement Report', introduced by Kevin Madge. It blathered on about the great achievements of Carmarthenshire Council; despite finances being 'tight' the officers were wonderful, St Catherine's Walk was great and busloads of pensioners came all the way from Bridgend to spend their meagre allowance there, in, I suppose, Frankie and Benny's and River Island. He ran out of tributes in the end and sat down.

Annoying questions were raised as to how on earth the council could make promises, such as 'Improving the Emotional, Mental Health and Wellbeing of all people in the County' or 'Safeguarding all people from abuse, victimisation, neglect and exploitation', there was a general feeling that it was all nonsense. Which it is.

The report was dealt with in sections, and first up was 'Making better use of Council resources'. Plaid took their chance and Cllr Darren Price leapt in with the Sainsbury's row and the 'misuse' of council resources concerning the website article. The Chief Executive then attempted to silence the Councillor who battled on bravely, it was not on the Agenda, said Mr James; it was relevant to the topic under discussion, said Cllr Price. In a flash of inspiration the Chief Executive said that although Plaid were being very 'clever' it had to be on the Agenda for the public to be aware it was going to be discussed, I don't think anyone had heard this one before and we never knew he was so concerned, he did concede that the Chair actually did have the final decision but he had 'given her his advice', and, despite protests from the floor, he ordered the her to move on. That was attempt number one.

As the meeting progressed the various topics within the report were discussed and numerous other issues were mentioned such as the price of photocopying and local fly tipping problems, none of which were on the Agenda either, that was different though. Cllr Caiach tried to raise the problem of pollution in the Burry Port estuary under 'Environment' but the 'not on the Agenda'  ploy was suddenly re-introduced and she was shut up, she was silenced at the last meeting over this controversial issue too. When it came to the topic of Social Care another councillor asked the Leader whether it was true (knowing full well it wasn't) what he had said about the AM and MP jeopardizing a new surgery in Cross Hands by their Sainsbury objection, the Leader gave the Chair/Chief the nod to indicate he 'didn't want to respond'. Attempt two failed.

Cllr Caiach was joined by a couple of Plaid Councillors in stating that any 'Improvement' needs to start with an improvement in democracy, she tried at that point to second the Plaid Sainsbury motion but didn't get very far. She also pointed out that the thriving economic boom in Carmarthenshire, as described in the Report, was not quite accurate, in fact it was far off the mark.
Anyway, this was all too much for the Chief Executive who launched into Cllr Caiach telling her that she 'must be going round with her eyes shut', what about all the various cinemas and expensive shopping malls they'd built? he would 'take her round them all', he had had enough of her criticism, she was 'disingenuous'. Cllr Caiach was refused her right to reply.
Hopefully Cllr Caiach will call his bluff and take him up on his offer..

Much was said about the incomprehensible jargon and aspirational spin contained within the report, The Chief and one of his two Assistant Chiefs, Mr Burns, told them it was not really for our eyes, it was for the special eyes of civil servants in Cardiff and many of the aspirations apparently came from the Community Partnership Strategy and the 'Shared Vision' launched at that other great council office, Parc Y Scarlets, I bet that was thrilling.
Cllr Caiach made the point that this was, in fact, a draft report and their concerns should be included, or at least considered, before the final version. There were, I noticed, sneers from the podium.

The meeting rumbled on through several more reports until we came to Plaid's last stab at the debate. Primed with a copy of the Standing Orders Cllr Darren Price tried to move a motion without notice and introduce it as an urgent item, there was uproar again and barely concealed fury from the Chair, well not the Chair exactly. The same nonsense was trotted out about it having to still be on the agenda, even an urgent item had to be agreed by the Chair. This clearly only applies to meetings where controversial items may crop up.

To be fair I think the Plaid Chair was beginning to waver towards the end and was faced with a difficult decision, she had to placate Members and deal with the threatening noises in her ear from Mr James and hard stares from Kevin Madge. Mr James conceded again, that it was up to the Chair if she wanted to 'overrule her officers'; faced with a possible roasting in the corridor after the meeting she finally announced, to shouts of 'moving the goalposts' and 'brick walls' that she 'had been told to close the meeting'. Pity, she didn't seem the type to give in to bullying tactics.
Attempt three failed.

Once released into the fresh air, the immediate conclusion is that there is something very wrong with democracy in Carmarthenshire, you're unlikely to read anything like this in the local paper but that was what it was like, go and see for yourself. Today's meeting was an appalling display of deliberate manipulation of procedure to avoid controversial debate, about anything, not just the Plaid motion. I fail to understand why this increasingly acrimonious political row could not have been aired and possibly diffused. It's incredible. No wonder they don't want to be filmed.

Update 11th Oct;
I asked Carl Sargeant, Labour Minister for Local Government, via Twitter, whether he thought it lawful/ethical for a 15 yr old child to have to sign an unlawful legal undertaking not to film/record a council meeting before being allowed into the public gallery.

@carlsargeant1 has yet to tweet back.

@carlsargeant1 has now tweeted back;  "as your aware this is my private twitter account, maybe you would like to tweet/contact me like you normally do ...this doesn't anyone preference in correspondence".

OK, there we are then, a simple yes or no would have done. I've lost the will. So much for local government engagement via social media. Incidentally, Mr Sargeant does appear to use his twitter account to promote Welsh Government policy.


Plaid Gwersyllt said...

Disappointed by the lack of bottle by Sian Thomas, I would have expected more.

caebrwyn said...

Agreed. I'd go further, she sold her soul today.

Anonymous said...

She sold us all down the river just like all the parties

Anonymous said...

Regrettably for Plaid Sian in all fairness has to act as an independent chair person not to favour any one side similar to the Speaker in House of Commons

Anonymous said...

very good!

Anonymous said...

The speaker in the house of commons is impartial and does not have the head of the civil service whispering in his ear continually on behalf of the government. The position of chair is given as a "reward" for loyal service and in strict rotation [plaid/labour/independent] by agreement of all political groups.
So no election like the speaker in Westminster. No comparison. At least he has no worries about being filmed!
Don't pretend Sian was unbiased, she was clearly just a puppet who is willing to sell her principles for a lovely gold necklace.

caebrwyn said...

@Anon 1.09
I don't believe the Chair would have compromised her position by allowing the debate, nor breached any procedural rules. The issue had been widely reported and the subject of much speculation and strong opinions over recent weeks. The debate has merely been postponed, and dragged out, until the November meeting.

Anonymous said...

The sad thing about today's meeting was the unmasking of the chair as anything but impartial. The Plaid group was clearly quite shaken by her bias towards the officers and lack of even pretence of having the slightest consideration for the group of councillors who nominated her for her position as a reward for her years of loyal service.
There was not much point in delaying the debate on the Sainsbury matter as Plaid will surely submit another motion for the next month's meeting and air the same grievances again. The ruling groups will have been whipped to support Kevin Madge, an explanation for the indisposition of some members who will probably also feel similarly unwell next month. The group of [Labour] coucillors who very promptly sought to absent themselves as members of the labour and co-operative party [in effect abstaining if it had come to a vote] shows that the Labour group could be quite depleted in the event of the real vote next month when the motion is resubmitted with full dates etc.
The "make up the rules as you go along" advice to the chair of the CEO and head of legal would be laughable if democracy was not so important. Unfortunately the Labour and Independent groups still see the debates as"team events" with the result that most are prepared to conceed decent behaviour and their principles just to win a point.
Winston Lemon, in his submission on the bungalow project, was trying to open up the can of worms which is the CCC alledged list of "preferred contractors" who are the only firms invited to tender for their rather expensive building projects. He was told that even as a councillor he had no right to see the list of bids or the prices quoted. All was already decided and the matter closed.
This situation of stopping any discussion likely to embarass the Council and refusal to give elected members information when they are unltimately responsible for the actions of the council will only stop if enough decent members of the ruling groups who have principles act to change things. Whether they have the guts to do anything other than stay at home [ and/or hint privately that they are concerned and biding their time for the right moment to rebel] has yet to be seen.
Party loyalties are strong, few members are likely to openly cause trouble or leave. However, they can and should make representations within their groups to allow proper debate, tough when the CEO is rumoured to attend their group meetings on a regular basis!
Carmarthenshire Council is in this mess because all 3 political groups in CCC have allowed this situation since 1999. I hope Plaid now have a serious attempt at making the Council have proper democratic debates despite the clear defection of the Chair to the "dark side"!

Anonymous said...

Go by this blog I'd suggest it's alsmot impossible to call the Chair impartial. If the Chair had allowed the Plaid councillors to make their points and/or have a debate, then fair enough. But they didn't. So what made her actions impartial?

Anonymous said...

I think the last anonymous post has misunderstood. S/he is correct to say the Chair didn't allow any of the debates. Therefore Sian Thomas was impartial (i.e. not showing bias) throughout the whole meeting.

caebrwyn said...

Anon 20.23 As I said in my post, various discussions were allowed which were not on the agenda, particularly during the discussion on the Improvement Report, the controversial ones weren't.