Wednesday 31 July 2013

Is there an Evangelist in the house?

Update 31st July 20.40pm; I have just been alerted to the fact that the Mercy Ministry article and link on the Towy Community Church website has yet again disappeared. I am not sure why, perhaps the website is merely being updated....

Fortunately, I took the precaution of saving the page.


More thoughts following Mercy Ministry coming to Carmarthen and Mercy Ministry - Questions need to be asked

"We are proud to support Towy Community Church in its vision to create a multi-purpose life centre which will create new jobs and empower the community."
July 15, 2010

This (yes, a multi purpose life centre...) was a quote from a council Executive Board member (now retired) back in 2010 when the links to the Mercy Ministry were still plain for all to see on the Towy Community Church website, the council's 'partners', no less.

After the link 'disappeared' mid-2011 (prior to the council loan approval but after the land and grant were awarded) I asked the Church Pastor, Mark Bennett about the Mercy Ministries, he replied that "We are not planning to set up a Mercy Ministries home in Carmarthen.", as we now know, following the opening of the bowling alley, it is now "the vision of Towy Community Church to set up a Mercy Ministries house in Carmarthen".
It had merely been put under wraps given the public controversy and public funding. The public funding from Carmarthenshire Council has amounted to £1.4m.

It was a striking feature to observers of the December 2011 council meeting when the loan was granted for the bowling alley and 'multi purpose life centre' that not one mention was made of this link to Mercy Ministries despite the recent concerns having been raised in the press.

For a church which believes in the eternal conscious punishment of non-believers to have received so much public money is, to me, staggering - add on the intention to 'treat' vulnerable teenage girls through 'faith' (I'm putting it politely, we're actually talking about a belief in demonic possession) and the situation becomes scandalous.

Several bloggers have recently written about the extensive scope of the council's involvement with this church, and it's extreme reluctance to disclose correspondence. It has been refused twice, once for exceeding the 'costs' limit which was overturned by the ICO, so their next approach was to refuse it as 'vexatious'. It's now gone back to the ICO. My FOI saga can be read here.

Cneifiwr asks the obvious;  “A legitimate question is therefore why this small organisation has risen so rapidly to such a position of prominence and received so much public money?” With most decisions having been taken behind closed doors the situation is as clear as the usual Carmarthenshire council mud.

I hope this question will soon be asked in the Chamber, loud and clear. If there were any councillors or officers who were actually members of the Towy Community Church we hope interests would have been declared somewhere along the line. But what of those with a similar belief in evangelism and the infallible truth of the Bible? Is there at least a moral duty to declare something of an interest when involved in decisions which will undoubtedly further the aims of your particular faith? The question should not be 'is there a doctor in the house', but is there an Evangelist...

Continuing with this theme, blogger Jac o' the North hasn't minced his words; Carmarthenshire Council: Litigious, Vindictive, Dysfunctional, Secretive, Dictatorial, And Now, Anti-Welsh

Thursday 25 July 2013

FOI News - Business Management Group minutes - further delay

Way back in the spring, April 14th to be exact, I made a Freedom of Information request for minutes of Business Management Group meetings from 2011. My earlier post here, has all the background (scroll down a bit, as the first part concerns my ongoing request for correspondence between the council and the Towy Community Church).

Basically the BMG is a group of senior officers and party elite (it doesn't include unaffiliated Members but does include Pam Palmer the leader of the incongruously titled 'independent group'). The group meets and gives 'recommendations' to the Executive Board, these recommendations have never been known to be rejected. Agendas and minutes are not routinely published.

The group doesn't feature on the 'organisational structure' of the council either, yet it is clearly a formal stage in the cloudy decision making process. The disclosure of minutes will assist in a greater public understanding of how decisions are reached.

I asked for an update in June and was told that it was a 'difficult and complex' request and it was 'necessary to consider whether a wide range of exemptions apply to the requested information and, if they do, whether disclosure would still be in the public interest. That process is still ongoing in this case.' Fair enough.

The latest update, received yesterday, says that whilst the officers have now put their tuppence worth in, 'it has been considered necessary to consult with the members of the Business Management Group before a final decision can be made.'

That doesn't seem quite right. Exemption, or for that matter, disclosure, is a regulated, and legislated process under the FoI Act with public interest tests and ICO guidance to be considered. Or at least I thought it was. Asking Kevin Madge, Pam Palmer etc what they think about it doesn't seem to quite fit in with all that....

....and they haven't even asked the opinion of the Press Office yet either...

Stradey development - Cllr Caiach writes to the Minister - Updated

Update 27 July: Carl Sargeant replied to Cllr Caiach yesterday and it seems to me that there is some question as to whether the work should have started at all:

"Officials have requested written confirmation from Carmarthenshire County Council, as local planning authority for the area, of their opinion as to whether there has been a lawful commencement of development at the site.
Once the Council’s response to that request has been received officials will be able to progress their consideration of the call-in requests and preparation of advice for me. Until then the call-in requests remain to be determined and the Article 18 Direction preventing the Council from granting planning permission on application S/23311 remains in force."


Work at the Stradey site to build 355 luxury homes has started. This, readers may remember, was a very contentious issue and all tied up with the council's dream to build the taxpayer draining stadium at Parc Y Scarlets a few miles away. I'll not go over it all again but as you can see below, Cllr Caiach has written to Carl Sargeant, now the Minister in charge of Planning instead of Local Government, and the letter speaks for itself;

Dear Minister, 
The residents of the Stradey Area continue to be anxious and distressed at the continued building by Taylor Wimpey at the Stradey Park site. They are extremely worried about the flood risk likely as the site is clearly being raised above the level of their own dwellings in an area already prone to flooding. 
I am sure you are aware of the implications of the flood water displacement involved in raising acres of land out a C2 flood plain. I have already asked you about the position of the Article 18 "stop" order on the development and whether the Article 18 has been withdrawn as happened with a similar order on this site which was dropped by Jane Davidson on the threat of legal action by Taylor Wimpey some years ago. 
The residents are outraged. The people likely to suffer are the residents of a modest council estate , Iscoed, and a road of small terraced houses, Sandy  Road. They are people of modest means, many are elderly, most have low incomes, a large number rely on benefits and few will be able to relocate to a safer area if the "flood risk mitigation" of raising the land around them goes ahead. These new homes are not for people like them, but for the benefit of others and to the detriment of local people.   
As you are aware, the new development is one of luxury homes only with no social housing or
starter homes. I am aware that my authority, Carmarthenshire County Council, is desperate to have the development completed in order to claim the outstanding £4.6M section 106 agreement. 
This money was to be the "Scarlet's" contribution to the new Parc Y Scarlets Stadium and as the development was delayed the County Council advanced this money to the Scarlets from our reserves. 
The County Council has continued with this project even against the advice of outside auditors who found that the business plan was extremely "challenging". Indeed the auditors have been proved right in that the Scarlets are insolvent, their debts have increased and giving planning permission on a flood plain in order to raise the value of their land so it could be sold to clear their debts has not brought the financial benefits envisaged. 
This leaves my voters as the victims of an ill conceived financial deal to build a stadium and save a private sports club from financial problems. The Stadium has been built, the club is still in the financial mire and local residents will have increased  risk to themselves, their own homes and possessions. 
We have a recession, poor employment prospects and face years of austerity while our authority pushes for luxury homes to be built on artificial cliffs looking down on them. 
I beg you, Mr Sargeant, to look objectively at this farce. The last major flood at the Iscoed estate was in 1981 when it flooded to a maximum depth of 10 feet and many were rescued by boats. Since then, despite the Council raising pavements and garden paths and doorsteps, minor floods occur whenever there is heavy rain and sandbags on the doorstep are a common sight and minor ground floor floods not uncommon. 
Flooding in this area is no theoretical possibility. Most of the water pours off the Stradey Park. The new development will rob the area of the "sponge" effect of the practice pitches next to Iscoed and the raised land will effectively dam the water into the natural depression in which the estate was built.
At a public meeting last week I showed the local audience my routine "17 day" reply response from your department. We felt it would be appropriate for you to reply to us a little faster! The issue is "Can the Government of Wales stop development on dangerous flood plains?" 
Please Answer! 
Sian Caiach
County Councillor
Hengoed Ward
(For further background to the controversy surrounding the Council/Stradey/Parc y Scarlets deals please search this blog or Google)

Friday 19 July 2013

Pembrey Park and Unison - Hysterics from the Press Office

Unison Carmarthenshire recently issued a press release raising their concerns that Carmarthenshire County Council might be about to sell off Pembrey Country Park and parts of the Llanelli coastline to developers. The council have asked for expressions of interest and proposals to manage the Country Park but deny that ownership will change hands. However recent comments from the council suggest that no stone will be left unturned, including privatisation, as it tries to balance next year's books, in the firing line are "the non-statutory services like economic development, leisure, parks, toilets. We don't have to provide any of these things."

Unison are not opposed to appropriate development in the area which will safeguard existing jobs and keep the area in public ownership but by the council inviting business interest, I would be concerned that privatisation could well come through the back door. Given the council's lack of transparency, poor consultation and the sensitivities of 'commercial' interests it could be gone before you know it. Time will tell.

Anyway, the Llanelli Star reported on the press release and asked the council for a comment. The Council spokesperson didn't even bother to conceal their anger towards Unison and, in a typical reaction to valid concern, and without shame, called them scaremongering liars;

"Unison's claims are complete and utter tosh and scaremongering. This is same old same old rumour and fabricated diatribe that is resurrected every few years that has absolutely no foundation at all. It is a downright and cheap-shot lie that the park is for sale, designed to provoke anxiety."

As well as the screeching council press office, the Head of Leisure Services also gave a quote. He, on the other hand appears to have swallowed the Council Manual for Jargon and Obfuscation;

 "To continue to operate as we are is not an option and would inevitably lead to the closure of many facilities such as country parks.
"The authority is taking a pro-active approach in looking for income-generating opportunities that provide a better offer to the end user whilst retaining control of the park."

As I said, time will tell.

Unison are also wondering just which end of the socialist spectrum the Labour leader of the council Kevin Madge sits. He doesn't, in fact, appear to be on it at all. To be honest, he doesn't even appear to be 'leading' the council, but as I have said before, this is an officer-led authority and it's probably not Kev they should be talking to. Whilst I am not being personal, I think Carmarthenshire Labour would do well to pick another leader before it's too late, there's a few good ones to choose from. Kow-towing to Pam Palmer and her Indies and blindly following officer decisions is doing them no favours.

Mark Evans, Branch Secretary of Unison Carmarthenshire has reacted strongly to the recent statements by the Chief Executive of the council on the 'shape of things to come'. His letter was printed in this week's Carmarthen journal and it can be read here; We must unite to fight the cuts 

Filming council meetings in Wales - A Facebook page

Back briefly to the issue of members of the public being free to film and record open public meetings of their council.
I have set up a Facebook page to encourage interested members of the public to take up their smartphones and try and bring Welsh councils in line with English guidance and track progress.

Please have a look and, if you wish, 'Like' the page and join the campaign.

Wednesday 17 July 2013

Mercy Ministry - Questions need to be asked

Further to my previous post, Mercy Ministry coming to Carmarthen and thanks to a commenter on Cneifiwr's blog, we now learn that the partnership between the Towy Community Church and the Council also extends to a 'Team Around the Family' initiative set up last year with this fundamentalist evangelical church named as an agency engaged by the council to provide support to vulnerable children and families. 

Perhaps we could have some reassurance from councillors that they will now be asking some serious questions over this whole matter. Given the church's stated intention of establishing a Mercy Ministry, and the council's intention of providing 'alternative ways of delivering services', we hope they're not planning on sending our vulnerable and troubled young girls there to be cleansed of sin and reborn.

“It is important that the position of the council as a secular institution is preserved.”

This is a quote from Carmarthenshire County Council in a report by 'Christians in Parliament' June 2013 when local authorities were asked for their views on working with faith groups in the community. Somehow or other, it seems a little disingenuous.

Webcast stats - accessed 2757 times!

I have the webcast viewing stats for the three meetings so far, (I'm waiting for the 10th July archive figs)  - In total they have been accessed 2757 times. 

The June and July 'live' figures are not unexpected, especially at 10am when I imagine most people are in work. The important figures are the archive hits which are good and indicate that people prefer to view at their leisure and in easily digestible chunks.

With a total so far of 2757 viewers, or thereabouts, this is at least 2755 (minus two bloggers) more than would have seen the meetings before the webcasts.

The next full council meeting is not until September 11th as there isn't one in August because many Members will be busy with the harvest.... Many other meetings have been cancelled this month as the lengthy summer hibernation sets in.

However, I'm certain that September's meeting will be a lively affair and I trust that @CarmsCouncil will not forget, again, to remind people it's on.

The webcast archive page;


The Evening Post reports yesterday that Neath Port Talbot Council has voted against webcasting its meetings and also agreed not to change the policy that prevents photographs being taken or recordings made at meetings.

Its all a bit sad really, the same old excuses appear against public filming; fear of 'selective editing', fear of technology, fear of criticism; the bizarre reluctance to have a true record of what was said and the fear of political grandstanding (instantly recognisable, the public are not fools), and that it will "get out of control". As for the last point, nobody from Carmarthenshire council has used the webcast to burst into song, or throw a punch for that matter, not yet anyway.

"I am concerned about the possibility of people making recordings," said Councillor Annette Wingrave. "Today's technology could be used to allow editing, and selective editing of any quotes given by members could mean we have a problem.
"We would have to record all the meetings to ensure we had a valid correspondence. I do have an issue with that."
That view was shared by Councillor Alan Carter, though he also had another concern.
He said: "If meetings are recorded there are certain members who will not be able to resist playing to the gallery. It will get out of control.

I am reminded again of Trawsfynydd Community Council who, when responding to my Welsh Government petitions for filming and publishing spending details, said they'd been doing things their way since 1896 and weren't going to change now...

Generous salaries and civic nonsense

It would appear that the Director of Technical Services at Carmarthenshire Council is retiring, I only happen to know that because the council is advertising the post which carries a generous salary of between £111k and £119k per year plus benefits.

This is at a time when the Chief Executive of the council is warning of unprecedented cuts to services somewhere in the region of £12m or even £18m,  next year; "This is the first time I've had to say to Members — 'I don't know where these savings are going to come from"  With education and social care budgets protected, non-statutory services such as economic development, leisure, parks, sixth form transport and whatever else they don't legally have to provide, will take a big hit.

As I understand it, the post of Director of Technical Services is also 'Non-Statutory'....but unsurprisingly, it looks like senior management posts in Carmarthenshire Council will also remain protected.....


Every few weeks, in Carmarthenshire council's strange concept of transparency, the Chair and Consort's Diary is published. As it doesn't specify otherwise, we assume all listed events are attended. Included in amongst the various charity events (and the opening of the evangelical bowling alley) are numerous Civic Dinners, Civic Lunches and Civic church services. These are not local to the County but hosted by other councils across south and mid Wales. In three weeks this month alone, three church services will be attended, one in Powys, one in Torfaen and one in St Clears (ok that's in Carms).

As these are all Civic functions I would make an educated guess that the executive Council chauffeur driven motor is put to use and gently glides expensively around Wales, meeting up with other executive motors to deliver it's cargo to these outdated, pointless and wasteful events.

I can picture the uniformed chauffeurs polishing the motors whilst the great and good rattle their chains over a five course lunch or, if it's a church service, perhaps they're earnestly praying for the poor...

It's all symbolic, to me, of a cap-doffing age which has long passed. If charities, schools and other organisations wish to have the Chair and Corporation attend then that's fine, far be it for me to say anything, although I'm not sure it's sending quite the right message on to our youngsters.

It smacks of an bygone age when unquestioning respect was expected towards civic dignitaries - this does not, and most definitely should not apply these days.

Saturday 13 July 2013

Mercy Ministry coming to Carmarthen

One of the controversial issues concerning the relationship and between the evangelical Towy Community Church and Carmarthenshire Council, and documented on this blog and elsewhere was the church's link with the Mercy Ministries. Particularly as the council saw the Church as a 'social enterprise' which could ease the pressure on the social care budget.

Back in 2011 concerns were raised that the global Mercy Ministries, which offers courses for young 'fallen women', had been accused of performing exorcisms as a treatment for eating disorders, self-harm, depression etc and the organisation also takes 'a pro-life and anti-gay stance in their faith-based approach, and as such, extend their program to offer women with unplanned pregnancies with alternatives to abortion, as well as treating women who identify as lesbian or who have sexual identity issues' (Wikipedia)

Given that the Council has so far stumped up £1.4m in land, grants and a loan, towards the 'bowling alley' the association with the Mercy Ministries was worrying, not least of all with equalities legislation.

The link from the Church website was suddenly removed around the time when MP Jonathan Edwards spoke out in November 2011, he said;

“Having read about Mercy Ministries, I am concerned to learn that Towy Community Church intends to establish a base for the organisation in Carmarthenshire.There should be no relationship between public authorities and such a fundamentalist organisation. The Welsh Government and the county council have provided substantial sums of money to the Church. It is therefore a legitimate question as to whether public funds have been used to fund, directly or indirectly, Mercy Ministries.
Carmarthenshire county council must urgently investigate this situation and ensure taxpayers money has not been funnelled into this extreme group”.
(Daily Post;  Church linked to exorcists is given Council cash)

Anyway, all went quiet, and Mark Bennett, the Pastor of the Church, (which, along with Mercy Ministries UK, comes under the umbrella organisation, the Evangelical Alliance) said that the vision to establish a Mercy Ministry in Carmarthen was a 'seed that never grew'. Carmarthenshire Council have not made a comment to date.

Well, that seed looks like it's now very much growing. A couple of short weeks after the grand opening of the bowling alley attended by the great and good of Carmarthenshire Council, the link has now reappeared on the website, not just a link but an article with the statement that;

It is the vision of Towy Community Church to set up a Mercy Ministries house in Carmarthen to meet the needs of the community.

(This pic links to the Towy Community church website)

I'm speechless and there are a few urgent questions which now need addressing;

1. Given the forthcoming cuts to services, described by the Council Leader as of 'Biblical proportions', and also the intention to deliver services in an 'entirely different' way, could we have reassurance that this will not be one of those 'alternatives'?

2. Given that the links from the Towy Community Church to the Mercy Ministries was present when council funding was being allocated, then removed, only to reappear once the bowling alley was complete, will any councillors be suggesting that the matter be independently investigated?

3. Will the Council, and the Welsh Government, who have also stumped up a small fortune, now be reviewing their position with regard to funding?

Please search google for more information, there is also considerable criticism of this organisation, not least of all here; RH Reality Check, The Truth about Mercy and Mercy Survivors,

Mercy Ministries UK is an 'International Affiliate' of the global Mercy Ministries, based in the USA. The Towy Community Church, when challenged over the link decided to play down the connection and accused the 'two bloggers', MP Jonathan Edwards, Wales on Sunday and BBC Dragon's Eye of running a 'smear campaign'. The Pastor of the Towy Community Church and the senior officials of Carmarthenshire Council who were invited, all refused to appear on the programme.

(For a summary of the development of the 'partnership' between the council and the Towy Community Church, I wrote a post for Secular Wales last year.)

(2nd August; More recent posts; Is there an evangelist in the house? and Mercy Ministry - questions need to be asked. At some point in the past week, the article and link to the Mercy Ministries mysteriously disappeared again from the Towy Church website. Given the enthusiasm expressed in the article, this 'vision' of setting up a MM home certainly hasn't disappeared with it. Can only assume it was removed after advice from person, or persons unknown. I took the precaution of saving the page though) 

Thursday 11 July 2013

The July meeting

A few brief comments on yesterday's meeting, in no particular order. There's a link to the archived meeting at the end of this post;

The council's PR Department, with it's £1m budget and substantial 'team', failed to advertise that the meeting was being webcast; no mention on the council's homepage (the last two meetings were, and there were even direct links), and not even a mention on the council's Twitter feed. Very disappointing. I can only assume that after last month, County Hall was hoping no one would watch it. Cutting the viewer numbers will give them the excuse, at the end of the pilot, to close the lid.

The usual aim is to avoid anything controversial being aired in front of the public, or the press, or bloggers .....and now in front of the cameras. Before the pilot started, the leader, Cllr Madge said he was looking forward to the webcasting which would show 'warts and all'. I think, after last month, they may be having second thoughts about the warts. The Plaid Motion against wooden poles to carry electric from various wind farms and take it underground instead was always going to have unanimous support, and be 'allowed' on the agenda. When the freedom of the local press was at stake last year, that particular Motion was not allowed on the agenda.

The Ombudsman has asked local authorities to deal with low-level frivolous and petty complaints between Members themselves rather than going to him, as he clearly has enough to do. You will notice, on the webcast, that there was something of a spat between Cllr Caiach and the Chief Executive. The Chief Executive, you may remember, made a series of complaints to the Ombudsman last year about Cllr Caiach, all of which were dismissed by the Ombudsman (Western Mail)

Cllr Lenny brought up the issue of Llanelly House. I mentioned this back in December when, as an exempt and urgent item (not on the agenda) the Executive Board decided to lend the trustees an interest free cash flow loan of £250k to be paid back by the end of 2013. The first repayment of £125k is due this month. The house is being refurbished as a tourist attraction but there have been delays, and Finance Wales, who were funding the project were reluctant to extend the terms of the loan. Step into the breach Carms Council. We don't know whether the Council have had the £125k yet as the topic was deemed to be 'not on the agenda' and ignored. A simple yes or no answer to Cllr Lenny would have sufficed though.

A few weeks ago the Executive Board approved plans to sell off 86 small parcels of land, the Leader said they couldn't afford to cut the grass and, with financial gloom fast approaching, needed the money. There were a handful of plots that attracted numerous objections. One was in Gwyddgrug, the home turf of Plaid Cllr Linda Evans. There were several letters to the council  raising objections, not least of all from Cllr Evans herself. Even the Council's very own Children's Play Sufficiency Officer wrote a report, recommending that the land was retained for play. Residents had also asked about using some of the land for allotments.

Despite Cllr Evans' efforts and the efforts of the community, the Executive Board decided to sell the land. Another small plot in Llandyfaelog, an area which, (as pointed out by Cllr Darren Price), happens to be represented by Executive Board Member Cllr Mair Stephens, was allowed to be retained by the community at a peppercorn rent.

Both the Chief Executive and the Director of Social Care referred to the impending financial meltdown, between £12m and £18m instead of the predicted £5m. Life in the county will never be the same again. And those Improvement Reports will lose their glossy sheen. Although we may not notice much difference in the Chamber of County Hall. A report will go to councillors in the Autumn. The public and press will then be able to 'make suggestions' as to where the axe will fall. I hope that includes bloggers. One to watch.

One of the ways the council could of empower the public with enough knowledge to make constructive suggestions would be to publish the council's spending details, which they flatly refuse to do.

The Council's attempted PR coup over the National Survey for Wales results also fell a bit flat. Further to yesterday's post 'The worst council in Wales', it seems that the figures and tables had been quite carefully scrutinised by a couple of councillors who challenged the council spin, so one of the Assistant Chief Executives (we're lucky in Carmarthenshire to have two) was tasked with trying to explain the over inflated claims of success. He didn't really know what to say.

As I have mentioned before, the council seems to be taking the declarations of interests to extremes. Prior to the filming, a form was passed round and the Member quietly left the meeting when he or she had to. Or we presume they did anyway. For some reason the Chair now asks for declarations every five minutes, or so it seems. This appears to be backfiring, giving rebellious councillors the opportunity to speak out. Towards the end of the meeting Cllr Caiach almost poured untreated effluent over the carefully controlled proceedings by mentioning the pollution in the Burry Port inlet, she was quickly silenced.
It became clear that an urgent rethink was on the cards and Linda Rees Jones, the Monitoring Officer hurriedly suggested that councillors approach her before the meeting about declarations. The Chair agreed, and that it was all best kept away from the cameras.

Here's a link to the archive; which you can browse at your leisure. 

Wednesday 10 July 2013

The Worst Council in Wales...

Carmarthenshire Council is very fond of telling us that it is the best local authority in Wales, the envy of all others, of the world perhaps. Not everyone is convinced of course. Appearing on their homepage yesterday was another reminder;
'In the recent National Survey for Wales on Local Authority services, Carmarthenshire was identified as the best in Wales for letting local people know how it is performing'

In fact, there was a raft of questions in the survey and unfortunately the results for 'did respondents feel  they could influence decisions affecting their local area? were the worst in Wales, with 70% of respondents feeling completely ignored. That bit wasn't on the homepage.

A clear result; Department of Spin - 1, Democracy - Nil.

Don't forget today's full council meeting starts at 10am and can be found here;
(Update; Meeting has now ended and will be archived later).

Monday 8 July 2013

Libel case - Notice of Appeal

Re; Jacqueline Thompson v (1) Mark James and (2) Carmarthenshire County Council

The Notice of Appeal was filed with the Court of Appeal on the 28th June 2013.
I am appealing against the judgement handed down on the 15th March 2013 by Mr Justice Tugendhat and the subsequent Trial Order.
The Grounds of Appeal relate to and include the serious findings made by the judge against myself, the dismissal of my claim, the counterclaim brought by Mr James, and the award of damages on the counterclaim.

The Notice of Appeal also requests permission to appeal.

Apologies, but I will not be publishing comments on this post. 

Sunday 7 July 2013

Council grant management 'weak' says the Wales Audit Office

With financial armageddon on its way to Welsh local authorities, Carmarthenshire, we are told, will have to 'save' somewhere in the region of £12m rather than the expected £5m next year. The 'drawing down' of grants to support essential services is already vital for public bodies and Carmarthenshire Council is no exception, with millions of pounds worth of grants funding everything from the Bwcabus to Community First schemes.

However, a recent Wales Audit Office report (April 2013) to the council as part of the annual audit, indicates that yet again, for the fourth year running, all is still not well in the world of grant management and its getting worse;

'Arrangements for the production and submission of grant claims remain weak which is exposing the Council to risks, resulting in a loss of funding and increased audit fees'.

For example, the fees for auditing the Collaborative Communities Grant has more than doubled due to the extra work involved in identifying the ineligible expenditure

Many grant claims are complex and involve other agencies such as the Welsh European Funding Office (WEFO) but Carmarthenshire compares badly against the Wales average with two out of every three grant claims that are audited requiring adjustments, amendments and qualification. Agreed, the consequential loss is small in the grand scheme of things but the significance is that a) the situation is worsening, b) every penny counts and c) some of the concerns raised by the WAO below suggest a much deeper problem;

...some claims are submitted late;
...forms are incorrectly filled in;
...ineligible or unapproved expenditure is included;
...there's a lack of supporting evidence;
...audit fees to certify grants have increased, despite less claims being submitted;
...there's no system of monitoring payments/grants to third parties and
...contracts are not always awarded in accordance with Standing Orders.

Only sixty out of three hundred grant schemes run by the council were audited by the WAO and given their concerns, the WAO took an extra fifteen samples and found similar weaknesses, across all departments, increasing the risk of 'poor decision making and inappropriate expenditure'

Another concern was that 'Contracts not awarded in accordance with procurement procedures', the WAO recommends that the staff responsible, even for small contracts, receive extra training in correct procedures.

Grant reductions due to 'ineligible expenditure' included £86k for Cross Hands East development and £29k for Collaborative Communities. An 'adjustment' of £1m was required for a school building improvement grant due to incorrect completion of claim forms.

Ineligible expenditure included
...goods not received,
...activity outside the claim period and
...audit fees incorrectly included in the claim.

According to the report there is no system in place to monitor whether third parties have used the grants/payments awarded to them for the purpose for which they were intended and, with the absence of an audit trail, public funds could be at risk.

Take the Towy Community Church for example, how did a steel clad bowling alley in a distinctly non-rural part of Carmarthen attract a Rural Development grant of £25,000 intended to improve access to services and regenerate agricultural areas of Wales? And another £25k grant intended to safeguard local legends, history, culture, art and language and maintain the town, and the county's, unique character?

Wednesday 3 July 2013

The importance of filming meetings - updated

The Minutes to last month's full council meeting have just been published and provide a perfect example of why meetings should be filmed. It was filmed of course and remains in the archive, a true record of what was said. Minutes, as we know, only have to be a reasonable report of the decisions made and basic written record of the proceedings. And in Carmarthenshire, 'basic' they certainly are.

To give an illustration, Item 12 of the Minutes states;

'The Chief Executive in response to a query about members’ e-mails stated that a report on the matter, and on the Council’s e-mail and internet usage policy, would be submitted to a future meeting of the Policy and Resources Scrutiny Committee'

Based on this version of events, you might have been a little misled into thinking this was a general point raised about emails, in fact you'd be hard pushed to know what it was about at all.

You may possibly remember though that it was a little more specific than that, and related to the very sensitive and controversial issue of email 'snooping'.

By the wonders of modern technology, how the, erm, 'debate' actually went can be viewed here;

The fact that we, and the council, have an archived record enables both further discussion and debate in the big wide world. My comments on this particular item can be found here, 'Yesterday's webcast..almost home and dry'. 

In fact it takes the debate about anything discussed in an open meeting to a whole new level. What is vitally important is that not only do webcasts continue but they are extended to other meetings, Planning, Executive Board and Scrutiny as soon as possible.

The Council chief executive, given a two page spread in today's Carmarthen Journal, warns of a Doomsday scenario with higher than expected cutbacks on the way. The effectiveness of constructive (or critical) public scrutiny though (and to be honest, I don't think that's quite what the council has in mind when it said it 'invites comment') is entirely relative to the transparency of the decision making process.

Carmarthenshire Council's begrudging webcast pilot is not a culture changing event, far from it. Extend it, allow the public to film (still no proper 'rule' against it by the way), allow public question time, allow councillors to tweet from meetings and stop trying to control the editorial independence of the local press etc etc...and we might be getting somewhere. All at no extra cost.

Update; Excellent blogpost from Mrs Angry from @BrokenBarnet on the subject of transparency and @EricPickles. Mrs A's source (late night meeting in unknown north Finchley car park) tells her that Eric may be introducing statutory measures to ensure councils comply with the transparency agenda, coming after a week of nonsense in various English councils where public filming was banned.
Time he had another go at the Welsh Government.
Not something to begrudge: transparency in local government - Eric Pickles, still banging on the door of the Town Hall

Update 5th July; The Telegraph reports on the daft goings on in Keighley (Yorks) where ten police officers were called in to remove a group of pensioners who were trying to film a meeting of the town council. Mr Pickles said the council had 'lost the plot'.

In the Twitter exchange below Mr Pickles says he doesn't rule out legislation to ensure councils open their doors;

Tuesday 2 July 2013

Caerphilly Council Chief Executive arrested on suspicion of fraud

Update 20.52pm - The other individual who was arrested today along with Anthony O'Sullivan was his deputy Nigel Barnett, who has been acting chief executive of the authority since his boss was suspended in March. (Western Mail)
Avon & Somerset Police are conducting the investigation because Gwent Police was considered to be too close to Caerphilly council.

Due process will now follow.

Interesting developments in Caerphilly, south Wales, as reported below by the Western Mail;

Chief executive of Caerphilly Council arrested on suspicion of fraud
2 Jul 2013 13:12 by Martin Shipton
The chief executive of Caerphilly council, Anthony O'Sullivan is one of two officials arrested on suspicion of fraud and misconduct of public office, we can reveal. 
The arrests come as part of an investigation being undertaken by Avon & Somerset Police into huge secret pay rises awarded to 21 senior officers of the council. 
The rises followed recommendations made in a report by chief executive Anthony O’Sullivan. 
A statement issued by Avon & Somerset Police said: “Following a request to carry out a review by the Wales Audit Office two people have been arrested on suspicion of fraud and misconduct in public office. “They currently remain in police custody where they are being questioned. “It would be inappropriate to comment further at this stage.”
Sources close to the inquiry have confirmed that one of the individuals arrested is Mr O’Sullivan. 
After writing the report last year, Mr O’Sullivan’s own salary rose from £132,000 to £158,000 after the increases were approved by a committee of one Plaid Cymru and four Labour councillors. 
A further 20 senior managers also received a substantial pay rise, but the bulk of the council’s staff were on the third year of a pay freeze. 
The rises were rescinded in January after a public outcry, and under a compromise Mr O’Sullivan’s increase went down from £26,000 to £5,000. 
The chief executive was suspended in March on full pay after a report from the Assistant Auditor General for Wales, Anthony Barrett, said various aspects of the pay award were unlawful. 
Mr O’Sullivan was said to have acted unlawfully  by writing a report that recommended massive increases for himself and senior colleagues, and by being present at a committee meeting when the rises were approved. 
The actions of Mr O’Sullivan first came to light when information was leaked. 
Mr Barrett, the council’s Appointed Auditor, said in the report, published in March: “I have concluded that the decision by the Senior Remuneration Committee on September 5, 2012 to approve the pay structure set out in the report of the chief executive was unlawful on a number of grounds. 
“The first is that the meeting of the Senior Remuneration Committee was not properly advertised in accordance with the Local Government Act and neither were agendas for the meeting made available for public inspection as they should have been. 
“Certain officers, including the chief executive, who would have been (and indeed were) beneficiaries of the decision were present at the meeting to approve the salary increases. 
“No declarations of interest were made and these officers did not leave the room while the decision was made. Consequently they participated in the decision making process when they had a disqualifying financial interest. 
“Additionally, the report presented to the committee was written by the chief executive who was himself a direct beneficiary of the decision made and who gave advice on a matter in which he had a financial interest.” 
We have asked Caerphilly council to comment on today’s arrests

Team building

Carmarthenshire County Council's devotion (£1.4m worth of devotion) to the evangelical organisation, the Towy Community Church is well documented and the bowling alley (featuring toddler play area complete with licensed bar) is now open. Phase two, which includes the Church auditorium and various counselling or 'therapy' rooms should be underway before long, subject to funding. Where that funding will come from remains to be seen.

During the process, alarm bells rang when the then Leader of the Council, Meryl Gravell stressed the importance of this fundamentalist christian group in easing the pressure on the council's social care budget.

It looks like the evangelical theme is continuing, if on a slightly lesser scale. Information recently published shows the council's spending on social care training sessions and the organisations involved.
Amongst the data are two entries for 2012/2013, one is for 'Conducting effective one-to-one meetings' and another for 'Developing your team', at a total cost of £500. The provider of these team building sessions is named as a Mr Matt Bownds (Communications Skills Intervention), who also happens to be the Pastor of the Living Word Church in Carmarthen.

This particular organisation has a similar faith base to the Council's partners, the Towy Community Church. It follows the evangelical tradition that it's 'great commission is to make disciples';  Non-believers, in other words, sinners, will 'spend eternity separated from Christ, in hell'; and, of course, the literal belief in the Bible, 'which is completely trustworthy, true and without error'.

Perhaps it should be noted that as well as team building sessions for council staff, other members deliver assemblies in our Carmarthenshire schools.

On a related note, the Freedom of Information request appeared to be a bit of a 'round robin', perhaps a company on a 'fishing' expedition and went to many other local authorities. One of which was Ceredigion County Council who refused to reveal the names of the suppliers. They said; 'We are not able to provide you with the name of the personal details of the training providers due to confidentiality'. Given that the usually reticent Carms Council did give the names, it makes you wonder just how much grasp of the law, and consistency of its application, our public bodies have.

An evening at Llywnywermod

Charles finally closed the front door after a long and traumatic day pleasing the peasants in Carmarthenshire..or was it Caernarvonshire he always got them muddled up.... 'Camilla!' he called, 'fetch my slippers, crack open the gin and fire up the Wii !' I'm getting into my onesie!'
Whilst Camilla busied about and arranged delivery of the royal kebab with cheesy chips Charles reflected on the day. Why couldn't he have been Prince of Barbados or somewhere instead of Prince of bloody Wales, perhaps he already was...he would ask Mother.
The usual annual press nonsense over one's royal wages had been dutifully ignored and anyway, when that baby finally arrives everyone will forget the nonsense over one's royal property and tax affairs. Bloody Channel 4. Not my idea of being 'mentioned in dispatches'....and that soddin' Public Accounts Committee thingy, he mused.

Charles was still wondering exactly what it was he'd opened in Llandovery that morning, apparently it was a 'work-hub', or so he'd been told by the PR chaps. What's the point of that he wondered as he fired up the iPad to check Harry's Facebook status. There were a lot of nice people from the council there though and now that damn secondary school was finally closed none of the locals bothered him about it. Ooh, and apparently there were going to be 45 houses on the site with room enough, just maybe, to squeeze in a Waitrose. One could even 'shop locally' then.

Charles settled down with his Wii...Call of Duty...that seems appropriate. Camilla didn't mind him jumping around in his onesie shooting people, Mother wouldn't let him play it at Christmas because he frightened the corgis.

North Wales tomorrow, in the rain. He couldn't bloody wait. As Camilla plunged her feet in the washing-up bowl for a good soak she could heard the distant thud-thud of helicopter blades...the butler was waiting outside with his brolly and silver salver....the kebabs were on their way.