Thursday 5 September 2013

Autumn term

The Autumn Term at County Hall appears to be lumbering into action with the agenda for next Wednesday's full council meeting now published. The meeting will be webcast of course, and with a fair few committee reports coming up for rubber stamping it will be interesting to see whether those in charge of proceedings manage to prevent any wayward discussions under the spotlight of the camera.

There are numerous issues within the reports such as the unspent £1.5m S106 money languishing in vaults and the minutes of the last audit committee meeting where, with regards to grant management, the "Committee as a whole expressed grave concern regarding the content of the report and was extremely disappointed that the issue of non compliance with procedures had continued for a number of years without being rectified." (see earlier post here) . And will anyone dare bring up the taboo subject of the Council, the Towy Community Church and the Mercy Ministries?

Anyway, be sure to watch at 10am next Wednesday, or have a look at the archive later.

The leader of the Plaid group (the largest group on the council), Cllr Peter Hughes Griffiths has made another offer to Kev and Pam to join them in forming a rainbow coalition to grapple with the 'difficult decisions' ahead. Previous overtures have been rejected and Kev and Pam have yet to comment on Cllr Griffiths letter. Can't see it happening myself, and to be honest, for the failing democratic health of Carmarthenshire council, there needs to be an opposition.

For anyone who has endured the experience of trying to view the Register of Members' Interests Gifts and Hospitality (see The Sacred Parchments) the next meeting of the Standards Committee hints that access may be improved. The Local Democracy Bill which is going through the Senedd will require this register to be published online. Carmarthenshire's neighbours, Swansea and Pembrokeshire already do. The agenda item doesn't exactly say they will, but might have to in the near future...shock, horror.

The Council press office have got all exited over the Queen's Baton, heralding the Commonwealth Games, which will be visiting the county for the day next May, and council officers have formed a Steering Committee to 'maximise the baton visit'. As you do.

Lastly, some depressing news from Neath Port Talbot Council as they chose to remain in the dark ages and decided not to webcast meetings nor allow the public to film/photograph from the public gallery. The reason given to not webcast is the ongoing cost that would be incurred. There is a Welsh Government grant available to assist with the set up of course. Unfortunately there's no similar grant available to fund senior officers' pay at NPT council with the Chief Executive on around £150k and at least four other officers joining the over £100k club.
To allow the public to film or record doesn't cost anything. Wonder what Mr Pickles would make of it.


John Brace said...

An interesting blog post. I realise the Welsh situation is different, but the same reason (cost) was given at my local Council when they considered the issue of webcasting last year. I think then the cost quoted was £16k/year, although it's probably less now as they've reduced the number of committees.

On a positive point though, after another press release from Eric Pickles (and the resultant bad press) I am now able to film Planning Committee meetings. This is an area the public are very interested in. When there was a ban on filming of the Planning Committee I just typed up a transcript of what was said in the first hour on my blog. I think the politicians prefer filming to a verbatim transcript though!

On the contracts side of things, each year electors and members of the public can view and get copies of contracts, invoices etc as part of the audit of the previous year. This might be a way for you next year to get access to the financial relationship between the council, the church and Mercy Ministries that would otherwise be exempt under FOI. That legislation does apply to Wales too, see s.15 and s.16 of the Audit Commission Act 1998.

If the grant situation is as bad as that report states you might find out some interesting things! Also any idea roughly when Pickles is going to introduce legislation about filming?

caebrwyn said...

Thanks John. The Welsh Government will only go so far as to 'encourage' councils to allow public filming which is clearly not enough. I have no idea when or if Mr Pickles will introduce legislation (in England), it will probably take a few more ridiculous situations when the public are thrown out/arrested etc for having the temerity to try and record their local council meetings.
And I agree, Planning Committee meetings should definitely be filmed.
As for the inspection of accounts, several of us did just that last year but the way in which the material was presented to us was not exactly, how can I put it, 'user friendly'.
If the council actually published its spending details online it might be a start. Only one or two Welsh councils do this.
I have a long running saga with a FOI request concerning the Council and the church which is now back with the ICO.

Anonymous said...

Looking forward to the Rainbow Coalition. As People First promise never to join coalitions, I could end up as official Leader of the Opposition!
Sian Caiach

caebrwyn said...

Thank you Sian. That would be a delightful and welcome consequence of such an arrangement!

John Brace said...

Thanks for that reply caebrywn. Looking into the matter over filming, my own view is that Councils can't ban it, because they have a legal duty to make decisions compatible with people's convention rights under the Human Rights Act, specifically article 10 freedom of expression.

As they don't have an explicit power in law to ban filming and none of the reasons in 10(2) apply to, my view is it's unlawful. However you have to be brave to take on a taxpayer funded organisation in the courts.

The first body I ever sued was my local transport authority. The judge agreed that I had been unfairly treated because of a disability but let them claim the defence of "a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim".

The last body I sued was a local councillor on behalf of a political party and another branch of the same political party over a data protection act breach. Won the case, got a court order and tied up the councillor in a court room for two hours during an election.... however I've learnt that lawsuits should only be a last resort, are very slow and it's far better to try alternative methods if possible. I was sorry to hear about your libel case outcome and don't feel it fair that he should circumvent the rules by using public funds to win a counter claim. Do you have a date set yet for your appeal?

caebrwyn said...

Yes, I agree with you about the issue of filming, there is no legislation in England or Wales which prohibits it.
With regards to the rest of your comment, I'm sure you can understand that I am unable to comment at the moment.