Friday 9 May 2014

'Anonymous' press releases...and other news

One recurring feature of County Hall's generously funded department of spin has been the anonymous nature of certain press releases on controversial topics. The infamous 'Sainsbury' Saga' of 2012 resulted in Kevin Madge being named as the guilty party and then found guilty of breaching the code of conduct for using the press office to attack political opponents.

There were those who strongly suspected at the time that a certain senior official had quite a hand in the matter but, well, Kev took the bullet. At a recent scrutiny meeting it transpired that the Chief Executive had also 'signed off' the press release. This episode, and of course the outrageous blacklisting of the South Wales Guardian, eventually led to a review of the press and media protocol, which is currently ongoing.

Just who is responsible for authoring and approving certain press releases can be something of a mystery, February's attack on the Auditor, demanding he retract statements stop 'presenting his opinion as if it were the only opinion that mattered', was published on the council website and also attributed to an unnamed council spokesperson. Oh dear.

This week was no exception with the 'council spokeswoman' again putting in an appearance. This time it was to state that the council were still disagreeing with the Appointed Auditor and that now was not the time to ask Mr James to pay the unlawful monies back (See previous post)

Yesterday I emailed the council press office and asked who wrote this 'corporate' statement and who approved its release? There has been no response as yet, if there is anything other than stony silence, I'll let you know. (Nothing yet, and it's now the 13th May)

Interestingly, at the last meeting of the Policy and Resources Scrutiny meeting an important 'omission' from the previous minutes were mentioned; "reference was made to Minute 8: Press & Media Protocol. The Committee requested that the minutes be amended to reflect a request that had been made for consideration to be given to attributing press statements to individuals rather than to a council “spokesperson”.

What a good idea.

Another item putting in an appearance at this particular scrutiny meeting was a report on the progress of the Carmarthenshire Local Service Board (LSB) which, according to the report, has gone from 'strength to strength'.

This is a little difficult to measure as this body, led by the council, consists of senior management from 'partners' such as the police, the health board, further education, the fire service and the Welsh Government hasn't produced a set of minutes since 2010.

This was pointed out by the scrutiny councillors and apparently it's because of 'administrative reasons' and because it has no decision making powers itself. So there.

You would be forgiven for thinking, from the report that it's main purpose is to dream up new and elaborate jargon including 'intergenerational challenges' and of course, whole system strategic approaches.

To be fair, I'm sure the intentions to collaborate are well founded, and the initiative to set up LSBs by the Welsh Government was originally based on sound principles. We would hope so anyway as this year the LSB has had £1.1m of EU money to spend on developing their strategies and key priorities, including £133,976 for a Development Officer to develop the work of the Board and a Project Monitoring Officer to support the work of the Development Officer...

Nearly half of this money, £504,000 is to fund five 'third sector brokers' in Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion to 'develop links' between voluntary groups and statutory services provided by the two counties. This funding also provided for an 'evaluation process' which the council had commissioned out to an external organisation, a consultancy I imagine. Whether this will improve the lives of those in need is debateable, I expect half a million would have been a welcome boost to the voluntary services themselves.

Our scrutiny councillors asked whether the Board, which has been going since 2008, was actually effective but they were told that 'assessing the effectiveness of partnership working was often difficult', so, I'm guessing that nobody knows. Apparently it will soon become a Statutory body and therefore subject to public scrutiny...they better get those minutes sorted then.

The LSB is also the forum where our council cajoled it's partners into contributing to the council rag, the Carmarthenshire News. You may remember that the Police Commissioner recently decided that the police contribution to the freesheet was better spent elsewhere (ie local independent media) and pulled the funding.

Back yet again to those Wales Audit Office reports and one of the requirements was for the council to review their 'governance' arrangements. The auditor found the failure to publish agenda items in good time; casual pre-meeting meetings of the Executive Board; the presence of beneficiaries of financial decisions remaining in meetings and reports dressed-up to suit a preferred outcome, etc etc all needed urgent review. In other words, you can't carry on as you have done...and we will be watching.

At the extraordinary meeting on the 27th February, Cllr Madge decided that the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) should be the body to oversee the setting up of a cross-party group to review these democratic processes.

Some see the WLGA as merely a lobby group to promote the interests of councils and councillors and a spokesman is usually wheeled out whenever there is press criticism of local authority wastage or misbehaviour. Whether it could be regarded as a bastion for the protection of democracy on behalf of the council taxpayers is another thing.

Anyway, at a recent meeting of the Democratic Services committee it was announced that "the WLGA had agreed to facilitate the establishment, and funding, of an independent review body, which it was hoped would commence its review in mid May and produce its report by September".

I would suggest that for this process to be effective, any meetings of this group should make sure their agendas are published in advance and their meetings are fully minuted. It is not just the final report which is important but the process leading up to its publication. Full transparency is vital.

Its not just the WAO who are monitoring things in County Hall, the Ombudsman is still waiting for the council to complete yet another urgent review, this time regarding Planning Enforcement following a damning report from the watchdog nearly two years ago...

Quite what has happened to the cross-party group which was going to take further advice concerning the lawfulness or otherwise of libel indemnities for officers, we don't know. The offending and unlawful clauses remain, for the moment, suspended.

And finally, a mention of next week's full council meeting (agenda here) which will be discussing one of Caebrwyn's favourite topics, webcasting. Given the success of the pilot, the Exec Board have recommended extending the contract for a further three years and I trust full council will approve.

I just hope someone suggests widening the facility to all open meetings and, in the spirit of new found transparency and reflecting on legislation over the border, protects the democratic rights of anyone in the public gallery to make their own recordings....but I doubt that will happen.

Undertaking; now abandoned in body but not in spirit


Mr Mustard said...

Ha, if they review the policy and they decide no to public filming they have activated the review and you are released from your undertaking.

caebrwyn said...

@Mr M
You are right of course!

In fact, when the pilot was launched last year a Motion was put forward by the opposition to allow the public to film.
Cllr Madge and co managed to kick this out by deferring a decision until the 12 month pilot was completed.
So technically, Wednesday's meeting, and the item on webcasting, should include a vote on public filming.
Although, I must say, Mr Mustard's logical interpretation of the undertaking is preferable and quite correct!

Anonymous said...

@Mr M & Caebrwyn:

Please could I ask that you don't use the word 'logic or logical' whilst dicussing CCC; I feel it may confuse the general public, and may lead people to believe CCC operate in such a manner.