Sunday, 27 November 2011

Thought for the Day

Appropriately, for a Sunday, Y Cneifiwr has written a fascinating piece concerning the influence, and methods of influence, by evangelical organisations such as the Towy Community Church in the upper levels of local government.

Y Cneifiwr - Friends in high places

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Swansea Council to allow filming but doesn't go far enough

Interesting couple of news items in today's South Wales Evening Post. In a fairly positive move from Swansea Council, filming will be allowed...sort of, but as Councillors Rene Kinzett and Rob Speht point out very well, it doesn't go far enough. It will only be open to journalists and media organisations who will have to apply to the Council for permission and adhere to an, as yet unknown, policy. I could go on about all this but I have made my views clear throughout this blog; there is nothing for councils to fear by letting the public, or bloggers, film meetings; they need to realise it is what is going on in the Chamber that matters, not who's watching them.
Carmarthenshire Council, in particular, should remember this...

Filming decision to put Council's work in focus 
Swansea Council will be one of the first in Wales to allow cameras inside its chamber.
Members have approved proposals for the filming of meetings by accredited journalists and media organisations.
Chris Holley, council leader, said: "This is an important moment for the council and for local democracy. The council has a budget of around £380million a year and now council taxpayers who don't attend meetings will have a chance to see more about how councillors decide how their money is spent.
"The council's aim is to make it as easy and as straightforward as possible to allow the media and journalists do their job while also ensuring the conduct of meetings can continue effectively and efficiently.
However, at the council meeting on Thursday night some members said the proposals did not go far enough.
Tory member Rene Kinzett said: "This is a time when the media is moving ahead and we've huge amounts of online information available to us. I am remarking on a case in Carmarthenshire where there was an arrest for nothing more than trying to blog or take a picture.
"Now we are saying that everybody must fill out some sort of form. Everybody is a journalist.
"Everybody can go online and make comments. I think it's a nonsense. I would like this to be taken back and looked at again."
Jacqui Thompson, 49, from Llanwrda, an internet blogger, was arrested back in June for trying to film Carmarthenshire Council on her mobile phone.
Four police officers were called to County Hall in Carmarthen to deal with the incident.
Writing on her blog afterwards, Mrs Thompson said she was led away in handcuffs and kept in custody at Llanelli police station for around three hours. She said she was only released after she agreed not to film a council meeting again.
Under the new policy journalists and media organisations will need to apply for accreditation from the council to film or take photographs at meetings which would normally be open to the public.
They will also have to comply with terms and conditions set out in the accreditation policy.
It means that in meetings of the council in the chamber, the chair of council will be able to permit or disallow the media from filming or taking pictures.
Lib Dem councillor Rob Speht said he found himself agreeing with Mr Kinzett, and also called for the proposals for filming to go further.
He said the ability of every man to film and put the content on social media groups such as Facebook was helping bring about democracy in countries like Egypt.
"Not that I'm saying this council is like that," he added. "But this should be referred back. At the moment there is no way of being able to feed back imagery from this chamber by those who are paying for it."
However, councillor Mike Hedges said while he was fine with live streaming, he questioned whether filming would be open to editing."

Just what are they scared of? - Editorial
News-gathering techniques have moved on apace in recent years.
Phone camera images of Colonel Gaddafi were flashed across the globe within minutes of his death. Protesters in Egypt can spread the truth before the propaganda machine starts working.
And the Syrian government is no longer able to crush rebellion away from the gaze of its neighbours.
Yet in this country we are not yet allowed to see democracy in action in council chambers or justice at work in court.
We are completely in favour of Swansea council's bid to be one of the first in Wales to allow cameras in.
With so many complaints to the Ombudsman, the Swansea public should have the chance to see for themselves what's been going on in the council chamber.
The spotlight may encourage councillors to conduct themselves in a more professional manner than they have been.
But we are not happy with the committee chairmen and women being able to ban filming or photography whenever the fancy takes them.
What are they afraid of?

(source for both articles South Wales Evening Post)

Friday, 25 November 2011

Carmarthenshire credit cards - Part two - Travel

Part 1 here;

In addition to the spending details released yesterday on general items with the council credit cards we also have lists of train fares, airline tickets and hotel accommodation for council staff and Members, these are categorised by department rather than individuals. The reasons for the stay/journey are not logged. However, it makes interesting reading and clearly, for some, if you'd care to look, only the best will do.

Here's the figures for 2010

And the figures for 2011;

(You'll notice small tabs across the bottom of the page to see each table and view individual credit card transactions)

I've totted up the figures for 2010;
Hotels for staff; £32,603
Flights for staff; £5431
Trains for staff; £15,388

Hotels for Members; £3729
Flights for Members; £262
Trains for Members; £2622

Grand total £60,035 added to the purchases of £40,000 makes a yearly spend, for 2010, of around £100,000 on the credit cards.

I realise that conferences have to be attended etc but to be honest this seems to be a huge amount, I never realised they were such a well travelled lot.

And on a completely unrelated note here's the latest post from Y Cneifiwr with further info on Carmarthenshire Council's 'partner' organisation, the Towy Community Church; Feeding the 5000
(Further to Carmarthenshire Council in Private Eye's Rotten Boroughs, again  and assorted previous posts)

Weird World of Carmarthenshire Consultations

Carmarthenshire Council appear to have difficulty with public consultations. I may have mentioned this before. As an objector to the closure of Pantecelyn secondary school I witnessed first hand the public consultation meetings which were entirely geared to pushing through the council's 'preferred option'. A similar scenario is developing over Furnace School in Llanelli. I do not want to get drawn into the merits or otherwise of the proposal in Llanelli, that is something for the people in the surrounding area to decide. (The arguments and detail have been well publicised recently in the local press) Whatever your opinions, the council's consultation document clearly states, as they all do, "we want to hear your views" and invites responses on an attached form. People still have until the 2nd December to object to, or support of course, the Statutory Notice.
There are now several objections and the Council are not taking this well and have taken the rather bizarre and distinctly undemocratic step of asking members of the public to withdraw their objections. This blog has had sight of the correspondence from the Director of Education. It is clearly a 'think of the children' piece, which is strange coming from the same council who accused Pantecelyn campaigners of 'emotional claptrap';

From: Robert Sully
Sent: 23 November 2011
To: xxxx
Subject: Re: Ysgol Y
Dear xxxx,

I acknowledge
receipt of your submission.

I am deeply concerned to receive your views
on this vitally important matter for the children of Furnace and the surrounding
area. A great deal of work has been invested by officers and members of the
County Council over a number of years to assess the most effective option for
providing primary phase education in the Llanelli area, including expanding the
provision of Welsh medium education in response to demand from parents, and the
strategy agreed by the Council democratically, with support from all the main
political parties, included the provision of a new expanded school at Furnace.
This extensive analysis considered the most appropriate structure for schools
and concluded that the present proposal offers the most appropriate way

I urge you to please reconsider your position on this matter and
to place the educational interests of the children of the area above other

Given that you have written formally to object if you are
prepared to change your position it will require you to withdraw your objection
in writing. I urge you to please do this.

The children of the area
deserve the very best in provision and learning environment and it will be most
unfortunate if their opportunities are prejudiced by a delay in the decision
making process by the need to refer the matter to the Welsh Ministers for
determination if your objection stands. We have secured over £10 million of
capital grant from the Welsh Government towards the costs of constructing new
premises and it would be a tragedy for the Llanelli area if this funding was
placed at unnecessary risk.

I hasten to add that the Governing Body of
Ysgol Furnace is fully supportive of the County Council’s proposals and is eager
to see the project proceed.

Thank you.


Robert Sully
Director of Education and Children’s Services

According to a source, one of the school governors has said that they were not consulted as to what type of school they wanted, just told what they were going to get, as is the tradition of Carmarthenshire Council.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Carmarthenshire Council credit card spending details

(please see part two, travel and hotels here;

I have finally had a response to my request for Carmarthenshire Council's credit card spending details, only two week's late but never mind. The response, which appears to be in full, can be viewed here;

Please download the info and have a browse through yourself to see whether you feel spending/credit card use has been appropriate. Transparency for the public was the purpose behind my request, of course. (One can only speculate as to the issues they've had with this).
I have had a fairly quick look at the figures and most seem reasonable. The total bill for purchases in 2010 was a little over £40,000, I guess 2011 will be similar. I am not particularly against the use of credit cards as long as the use is monitored and it provides a means for a quick, essential purchase and avoids lengthy waits for small local companies for payment, although there doesn't appear to be many local companies featured here.
I had previously asked for general spending figures (not credit card) to be released, but this was refused.

Amongst the items are several hundred pounds for tickets to theme parks and sporting events (rugby, naturally), however, as these seem to come under the Education and Children's Services I don't have a problem - as long as they were for the kids and not some corporate team building event for management. But then again, I've mentioned rugby tickets before. Much has been spent on books, again for educational purposes although one was for the planning department on 'Market Towns' in Wales and with their penchant for out of town supermarkets perhaps this was essential reading.

There are a couple of items I have issue with; The Press and Communications department have, over two years, paid over £3000 in subscriptions to access 'stock' photos, presumable for all manner of glossy leaflets etc. You know the ones? I also notice that £540 was spent on 'award entry fees' for the Chartered Institute for Public Relations (CIPR) - don't forget these figures are spends just on the credit cards.

The second string of items which concern me are fees to attend various Solace conferences. There are seven entries in all, since January 2010, amounting to £3050.81. As you will be aware this is the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives which already enjoys government subsidy, and has been under criticism for controlling many of the appointments and large salaries of council Chief Executives. Given the information provided, I have to assume this figure does not include subscriptions, nor travel or accommodation, just conference fees for the Chief Executive and, occasionally, other staff, although this is not clear. Last year I actually contacted the Chief Executive's department to enquire whether he would be attending the annual conference and if so, how much was it costing the taxpayer as the tickets were a little steep to say the least. My enquiry was completely ignored. Oh well, looks like it's finally been answered.

Other items puzzled me such as why the Department of Administration and Law needed to buy suitcases from Argos for £55.94 - someone going somewhere? Then there was £98 for 'refreshments' at a Regeneration meeting? £23 in car park fees for an unidentified 'elected member'? £262.79 on 'magnetic pins' puzzled me for a while but it seems these are a safe alternative to drawing pins, hopefully for use in schools rather than to protect the sensitive digits of senior management. I am not sure either why Trading Standards needed to buy giant dice from Amazon for £40.90?

And, last but not least 'Improvement and Skills' spent £295 on condom demonstrators - let's not even go there....! (ok I know they were for schools - I hope they were anyway - so no jokes please)

Defending Democracy....Cllr Caiach and more from the Carmarthen Journal

As I have mentioned here there was a concerted attack by a multitude of councillors against Cllr Sian Caiach at the last full council meeting. The minutes, unsurprisingly, are sketchy on her reply to them. The three party leaders then went a stage further and wrote a similarily damning letter in last week's Carmarthen Journal and Llanelli Star. Cllr Caiach has this week written to the Star herself explaining her position and her disappointment in her colleagues' stance.

I have also written to the Journal, it was printed, but not online, so here it it;

Trio's letter was appalling attack

I was appalled by the letter in last week's Journal launching a bitter attack on Cllrs Sian Caiach and Arthur Davies and signed by the three party leaders, Cllrs Kevin Madge, Pam Palmer and Peter Hughes Griffiths.
Have these three forgotten why they are there? Do they think their role in a council meeting is to pay endless tributes to officers? Are they not supposed to actually question the decisions of this officer-led council?
With regards to Furnace school, Cllr Caiach had to remind them that the public consultation period was not yet over and there was the whole issue of the planning application to go through yet. The deal, whatever the eventual outcome, was not actually done yet.

She, like the others, welcomes investment in education and economic progress in the County and also appreciates the efforts of officers; but that is not what it's all about - as with so many projects and 'visions' there is virtually no scrutiny by elected members, everything goes through with a nod and a wink, for all we know they could be giving money earmarked for local community groups to private companies..oh, hang on, they just did, £20,000 to the Scarlets for a 'Project Officer'.

Cllr Caiach was also criticised for 'interfering' in the Dinefwr Schools programme, perhaps these esteemed councillors were unaware that there was actually public opposition to the closure of Pantycelyn School in Llandovery - I could hardly blame them as the elected members for our area never said a word, never represented the views of local residents and were even thanked by the Director of Education for their support.

Despite having to run the gauntlet of the new undemocratic and unwelcoming entry ritual (as well as risking life and limb by being locked into the Public Gallery), I have been to several meeting of full council now and the process largely consists of a series of waffly tributes to whatever the latest wheeze the unelected officers have come up with. This, to be fair, is interspersed with the occasional voice of concern, soon silenced with frowns and protestations from various Executive Board members - in the case of Cllr Caiach the atmosphere becomes almost hysterical as she attempts to scrutinise, question and challenge the officer's decisions.

Whether or not you agree with Cllr Caiach's views or not, at the very least she recognises that the Council Chamber, despite the best efforts of senior management to curtail it through endless tweaks to the Constitution, is supposed to be the last bastion of democracy and the forum for scrutiny - It has become a joke in Carmarthenshire and the three leaders would do well remember that.

Yours sincerely
Jacqui Thompson

Also featuring in this week's Carmarthen Journal was this piece from William Powell AM (@WilliamPowellAM on twitter) on the value and aims of the Assembly Petitions Committee (I'll second that) and promoting it's use to raise issues;
Petition for Attention on Issues

And, incidentally, there was also this;
Blogger suing Council and it's Chief

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

'Mrs T request - Register of Members' Interests'

The correspondence continues with regards to my Freedom of Information requests. This one concerns my request for the Register of Members' Interests (including gifts and hospitality). It was refused on the basis that the information is available to view at County Hall, by prior appointment. I am sure they are correct in that, by law, they only have to provide the bare minimum of access. However, as I have said, neighbouring local authorities publish this information on their websites and it seems that yet again Carmarthenshire's attitude to transparency is at 'bare minimum', veering towards 'none existent', and at best distincly unhelpful. Not exactly in the spirit of the FoI Act. They do not seem to grasp that this is not about uncovering wrongdoing, it's about openness and 'putting your cards on the table', as it were.

Turning to the email recieved from Mr Colin Davies from 'Democratic Services'. It is in response to my proposal to personally collect the photocopied information from County Hall;

FW: REMINDER FW: Mrs T request - Register of Members' Interests
Tuesday, 22 November 2011, 11:25

Dear Mrs Thompson

Thank you for your E mail of 10 November last and I apologise for not being able to reply sooner.

You have already had a response from the Information & Data Protection Officer regarding your request for a copy of the register under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act.

The Register of Members’ Interests (including gifts and hospitality) is a statutory document and is available for inspection by members of the public at the County Hall in Carmarthen between the hours of 9.00a.m. and 4.00p.m. each weekday. The Council is not required to publish the register or to make paper copies available to the public, only to make it available at an office of the authority for inspection by members of the public at all reasonable hours.
If you wish to view the register during your next visit to County hall then I shall be glad if you could please let me know what time you would like to do this so that I can allocate members of staff to assist you. The register currently takes up 6 No. A4 ring binders and it would be helpful if you could indicate which members’ declarations you were particularly interested in, so that staff could extract the information for you and avoid the need to make the content of all 6 files available on the day. If you wish to see the whole register then of course this will be made available to you to view.

As referred to earlier the Council is not required to provide photocopies of the register and these will not be made for you.

Yours Sincerely,
Colin Davies
Rheolwr Gwasanaethau Democrataidd / Democratic Services Manager

(Note the large print in the last sentence, just so that 'Mrs T' gets the message)
Again, that 'not required' element comes into it - they don't publish, nor make copies - one can imagine someone sat in a dusty office scratching at a ledger with a quill. Perhaps I am imagining it but is there something of a personal and slightly sarcastic tone to this email from 'Democratic Services'? The email appears to exude barely surpressed irritation; I can view the Register during 'my next visit to County Hall' hmm. There will be 'members of staff' to assist me...will they be armed? Incidentally, much of the information released to me via the Data Protection Act concerned FoI requests where similar barely surpressed irritation is quite clear from internal emails. I am also beginning to notice, as I acquire other emails and documents from elsewhere, that bits and pieces had been quietly 'cut', not redacted, just 'gone' they were never there.... But that's DPA and another story.

Anyway, until this Council complies with it's own 'Core Policy' of transparency, joins modern society and maybe even publishes more information online, I imagine they are a little hard pressed to comply with requests so I replied to Mr Davies thus (and keeping with the blue theme);

To Mr C Davies, Democratic Services Manager;

Thank you for your response.

I fully understand your Statutory Duties and appreciate that under your present levels of transparency you have to consider not only the cost but also the staff time involved with complying with my request.
Without putting you office under undue pressure, I wonder if you would kindly compile a brief estimate of cost of allowing me to take photocopies myself;

1. The cost of the paper.
2. The cost of the ink.
3. Wear and tear (depreciation) and use (including electricity) of a photocopier to copy the material.
4. Office space for the time required.
5. Cost of staff to retrieve particular papers ( this will be unecessary as I will wish to view all the files, unless you believe I need to be be 'chaperoned').

I await your response. Should you agree and levy a charge, I shall then arrange a mutually convenient date and time to attend County Hall. Should you still not agree to photocopying, I shall still attend and I will, of course, wish to view all six files.
Please let me know your decision at your earliest convenience

Yours sincerely
Jacqui Thompson

I had an almost instant response (in larger letters, for emphasis, but still going with the blue theme);

Dear Mrs. Thompson,

Thank you for your E mail.
As referred to in my response to your original enquiry I am not able to provide you with photocopies of the register.
I shall be glad if you will please let me know when you intend to visit County hall to view the full register, so that I can make the necessary arrangements for staff and accommodation on the day

Yours sincerely
Colin Davies

So that's that then. I shall now try and gather a couple of willing helpers, make arrangements with 'Democratic Services' and take myself off, complete with notebook and pen and maybe even a camera, to County Hall again. I'll keep you posted.

My freedom of information requests, and the various responses and updates can be viewed here;

Carmarthenshire Council in Private Eye's Rotten Boroughs

Yet again Carmarthenshire Council make it into Private Eye's Rotten Borough's column, this time it's the links with the Towy Community Church.
For more on this 'partnership' between the Council and the church please search this blog, (including 'Do we want this in Carmarthen? )   and, of course, Y Cneifiwr's.

Monday, 21 November 2011

The Council 'Minutes'....and no mention of Jacqui?!

Further to this post 'No round of applause for Jacqui' , I noticed, with some excitement, that the Minutes of the meeting (Full Council 9th November) were finally published this afternoon. As you may imagine I was waiting to see, under Item 2, Apologies and Personal Matters, the little announcement that was made by Cllr Caiach about my blog award win, preserved in Council records for posterity. Just in case my eyes were deceiving me, I checked several times before I realised, that there not a mention. Not even a carefully worded summary!

I can, of course clarify it did happen, and these were Cllr Caiach's exact words....

"Can I add in our list of congratulations, and congratulate Communiy Councillor Jacqui Thompson there [indicating me in the gallery] on being awarded the Welsh political blogger of the year award, I think it's very good that someone from Carmarthenshire has won this honour" 

Please understand I am certainly not glory seeking but I am not sure they are supposed to ignore parts of the meeting they'd rather not mention...are they? In fact aren't they supposed to provide a 'reasonably fair and coherent record of proceedings'? Yet again, rather like the fanciful 'Council Rule prohibiting filming' which of course didn't (and still doesn't) exist, they appear to make things up as they go along. Amongst the other inaccuracies/omissions was a failure to mention Cllr Caiach's formal complaint about the rejection of the Motion to debate a no confidence vote in the Leader, Cllr Gravell.

Let's hope there is overwhelming opposition to signing these minutes off as 'correct' at the next meeting on the 7th December.
I know I am in danger of endlessly repeating myself, but these meetings really need to be filmed.

Minutes 9th November 

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Wales on Sunday reports on the Towy Community Church

I see that the press has now finally picked up the story about the Towy Community Church. As you may have read here and over on Y Cneifiwr's blog, the amount that has been given to the church by Carmarthenshire County Council actually comes to nearly £1.3m in land deals, grants and loans. This has been over the past eighteen months, and as I and the report notes, the link to the Mercy Ministries was only removed last week. It is also worth noting that the Leader of the Council saw this as a vital investment to reduce pressure on the social care budget. I notice the council declined to comment. I'll say no more. Please search this blog for further background.

By Daniel Fisher
"A church given tens of thousands of pounds by a Welsh council is a “partner” of a Christian group whose global operation has been accused of exorcising young women, Wales on Sunday can reveal.
Evangelical Towy Community Church, which has received more than £55,000 in grants from Carmarthenshire council, yesterday confirmed it made monthly donations to the Mercy Ministries group in the UK.
There were calls for transparency last night over whether public money was being funnelled into Mercy Ministries, which runs residential programmes for young women with “life controlling issues”.
The group, which has bases in the USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, is founded by a US evangelist who has written books and given speeches blaming psychiatric illnesses and homosexuality on “demonic activity”.
It claims it has helped more than 2,500 girls worldwide to overcome depression, eating disorders, addiction and other problems but it has been mired in controversy.
The UK arm of Mercy Ministries, which opened in 2006 and is based in the village of Oxenhope, Yorkshire, says it does not endorse or perform exorcisms. But in 2009 a former resident spoke out about her nine-month residency with the group, involving intense study of “demonic oppression”, which she claimed had left her “deeply disturbed”.
Towy Community Church said Mercy Ministries’ work was “important” and confirmed it was a “partner organisation”, though added it no longer financially supported the group.
The church has used public money for a number of projects such as setting up a bowling alley, debt counselling and plans for a possible conference centre.
Its website had stated a “vision” to open a Mercy Ministries in Carmarthen, but this has been removed in the past week.
Jonathan Edwards, MP for Carmarthen West, 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”.

Former AM Lorraine Barrett, who now conducts humanist ceremonies, said:“If the county council is giving money to a church then there needs to be total transparency about where that money is going.
“I would be concerned if money was being siphoned off for any kind of missionary work.”
Mark Bennett, founder of Towy Community Church, said the money it received from Carmarthenshire council would “give people of all ages and backgrounds the opportunity to reach their full potential and support the physical and community regeneration of our town.”
He said: “As Christians, we are passionate about helping those in need. Towy Community Church had previously supported a gap-year student at Mercy Ministries UK and decided to make a financial donation of £20 a month. We felt that helping women suffering from eating disorders, depression and self-harm was important.
“We are so thankful for the funding we have received from the many organisations that have captured the vision for the project, and who have had the faith in us – as we strive to work on behalf of those in need.”
A spokesman added: “The term ‘partner’ is a term that is used to describe individuals, churches or organisations who support them through financial giving.
“ It does not in any way mean that we are linked or associated with them through any legal or denominational ties whatsoever.
“ It just means that for a period of time we decided to make a small monthly contribution to what we thought was a worthy cause.”
Elfed Godding, national director of the Evangelical Alliance Wales said: “Mercy Ministries is not a member of the Evangelical Alliance. But Towy Community Church is. It is a shining example of how Christians should be working to transform their society for the good of all.”
Neither Carmarthenshire Council nor Mercy Ministries replied to requests for comment"

Y Cneifiwr; Towy Community Church in the news and Hell Fire and Santa Claus

It also has to be said that even a simple google search would have indicated the link to the Mercy Ministries, so, surely the council would have known about this for the past eighteen months? We'll just have to wait for a comment won't we.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

I Have Issued Proceedings for Libel

For information;
I have now issued proceedings in the High Court for libel against Chief Executive Mark James and Carmarthenshire County Council in relation to a letter published by Mark James dated 28th July 2011.

#Daftarrest Parking Ticket

An interesting development has occurred relating to the parking ticket (PCN) I acquired during the #daftarrest incident on the 8th June in Carmarthen.

Here is my challenge (it was the second challenge);

"Please refer to my previous challenge dated 20th June 2011. As it has now been admitted by Dyfed Powys Police that they acted on false information given to them by Carmarthenshire County Council on 8th June 2011 which resulted in my unlawful detention I am therefore not guilty of the parking offence. It was due to circumstances beyond my control that I was unable to renew my ticket"

And here is the acceptance, recieved today, from Carmarthenshire County Council;

 Well well. I shall leave you draw you own conclusions on this one...

Filming and Spending petitions discussed at the Senedd

Further to last Thursday's post Carl Sargeant to encourage councils to allow filming I have just watched the Assembly Petitions Committee discuss both the filming and the 'publishing spending details over £500' petitions. Again, like the last time there was broad support for both, neither has been closed and will be discussed with the Minister, Mr Sargeant when he attends the Committee on the 10th January.

Filming (Now closed for signatures but can be seen here)
With the level of technology around today, and the access to meetings by the public and press, Russell George AM pointed out that it 'seemed silly' for councils to prohibit the public from filming. The committee felt that there was little or no opposition to the principle of webcasting meetings from AM's or most councillors. The only reservations (I shall take Mr Sargeant's comments that he will encourage members of the public to film as a given) were issues of cost but Bethan Jenkins AM pointed out this may be a very worthwhile expenditure and could be balanced against the current high level of spending on PR, council newspapers and glossy brochures. Concerns regarding the availability of decent broadband to view meetings was also an issue (yes, that's an issue in itself) but according to one Member, by 2015 we will all have access to superfast broadband. Let's hope so. There was general consensus for further research prior to the meeting on January 10th including evidence from the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA).

Spending over £500 (Also closed for signatures but can be viewed here)
Again there was broad support for councils to publish details. Any reservations were again related to the cost of publication - this again should be balanced against the cost of related Freedom of Information requests, an example was given where a requester wanted the details of the budget of every school in one county. More research will be done before the meeting on the 10th January - I can only suggest they ask Monmouthshire Council about the costs and practicalities of publishing theirs.

So, it looks like I will be waiting for the 10th January - I may submit further statements myself for that meeting - and I will be watching, with interest, what Mr Sargeant has to say.

Today's Petitions Committee, now archived, can be viewed here , (or click on the picture below). My petitions are discussed at 32 minutes 10 seconds into the meeting (scroll across the viewer to the appropriate time).

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Public Gallery nonsense now with the Ombudsman...and FoI news

As I mentioned on Wednesday, fellow blogger @Towy71 has steadfastly refused to sign the Council's bizarre filming 'undertaking' and has been refused entry to public meetings. I have had to ditch my self- respect and sign the damn thing to report on council meetings. As you can see from his blogpost (Shame on you Carmarthenshire) he has now reported the matter to the Ombudsman. He shouldn't have had to do this - he, I, and others, have repeatedly asked councillors, Assembly members, Members of Parliament etc to challenge the ridiculous (and downright dangerous) measures restricting access to public meetings, including the undertaking. Either no one has any clout, no one cares, or no one is getting anywhere with it all - I don't know - please correct me if I am wrong and I will be pleased to report any attempts to challenge the restrictions on this blog.

Back to Freedom of Information requests and another response is delayed - this time it's my request for Credit Card spending details, it should have been answered by last Friday, they will resond 'as soon as possible'. Whenever that will be.
My latest request comes from the revelation that Carmarthenshire Council have spent £100,000 on private detectives over three years, it therefore relates to the Regulation of Investgatory Powers Act (RIPA) and the request can be viewed here;
They of course have 20 working days to respond.

Before I go, a reminder that the Petitions Committee meets tomorrow at the Senedd to 'revisit' my filming and spending petitions. Carl Sargeant has declared his intention to encourage councils to allow members of the public to film - I hope the committee go further and insist that councils allow it, and, with regards to both issues, maybe they've had a look at Monmouthshire. Pointless looking at Carmarthenshire.
Whatever the outcome I shall be waiting for my invitation from Carmarthenshire Council as they encourage me to film their next meeting. They will also be able to tear up the undertaking and ditch the entry ritual...won't they?
Carl Sargeant to 'encourage' councils to allow filming

Oh, and it looks like Carmarthenshire Council should be 'twinned' with Barnet Council, I think they'd get on well.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Do we want this in Carmarthen?

Further to previous mentions I have made about the Towy Community Church and it's Excel project in Carmarthen I strongly suggest you go over to Y Cneifiwrs blog and have a read of this;

Meryl and the Mercy Ministries

As Carmarthenshire Council senior bosses continue to provide enthusiastic financial support, without, it appears, any further reference to full council, I hope some of our elected members start to ask a few searching questions. Questions that should have been asked a long time ago.

previous posts include;

please use searchbox on right for more

Friday, 11 November 2011

Council spends £100,000 on Private Detectives

A story has emerged today on the worrying news that Carmarthenshire Council has spent £100,000 on private detectives over the past three years. A local MP Simon Hart had asked how much had been spent. The Council's feeble justification for using the services of private investigators was mainly to track people down for unpaid council tax and there was this bizarre tale of mistaken identity;
Mr Hart started making inquiries after hearing a woman in Devon was visited by a private eye, working for the council, who wanted to know whether her son had fathered a child.
"The council's legal department had tasked the detective firm with finding an address for the child's father so he could take paternal responsibility if he wished.
"But as her son would have only been 14 when the baby was born she was understandably extremely surprised and upset," he said.
It turned out that the detective firm had been given an incorrect spelling of the father's name and the private eye has apologised for the error".
South Wales Evening Post

And how do we know, given this sorry tale, that these investigators have been employed for legitimate purposes? We don't. There is no record of regulation, scrutiny or individual payments. The Council, like others, employ the services of private enforcement companies and bailiffs for unpaid debts as well as having their own 'anti-fraud policies' and of course the army of litter and parking police. If this Council had published all it's spending details we could perhaps have asked why £XXX was paid to Magnum PI. Where does it all lead? Have they been phone hacking? Email snooping? Do they track people who criticise the council? Do they have people arrested for filming their meetings? Need I say more. It's a pity the residents of Carmarthenshire couldn't employ a couple of PI's to have a snoop round County Hall. 

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Carl Sargeant to 'encourage' councils to allow filming

I was reminded today by the Assembly Petitions Office that my petitions are back in front of the Committee next Tuesday (15th). Here's the Agenda, and of course the meeting can be watched - live - on Senedd TV. Carl Sargeant, Welsh Minister for Local Government, has written to the Committee with his views on filming and publishing spending details. He wrote to me a few weeks ago when I queried the entry procedures for the Public Gallery, that letter can be seen here, I have, of course, made my views on that matter abundantly clear.
But back to the issue of filming, Mr Sargeant now states that he will 'encourage' local authorities to allow the public to film as long as; a) Members are aware, and b) it doesn't inconvenience other members of the public attending. Although I reserve judgement until the petitions committee discuss all the matters involved, including the publication of spending details, I am quietly hopeful that this is a small step in the right direction, almost adopting Eric Pickles guidance issued to English councils back in February, I wonder whether he has been talking to Monmouthshire Council, he definitely hasn't been talking to Carmarthenshire Council! Here is Mr Sargeant's letter, (click to enlarge, or there's a link to PDF version here);

If the committee endorse his recommendations, or maybe go even further, it will be interesting to see how Carmarthenshire Council deal with such 'encouragement' next time I turn up with my camera, I shall ensure I announce my intention to everyone first of course, not that I hid the fact before. Or perhaps they could adapt their current posters in County Hall which alert you to the fact you are being filmed on CCTV!
On the subject of Monmouthshire Council, they (as of course Aberystwyth Town Council did a couple of weeks ago) allowed the BBC in today to film one of their meetings for a documentary - they sent me this rather nice picture;

source @HelReynolds
Whilst on the subject of transparency my FoI request to Carmarthenshire Council for copies of the Register of Members interests, gift and hospitality was refused today. As I suspected, I am expected to make an appointment and travel to Carmarthen to view the information, probably under armed guard. This is unlike several other Welsh councils who easily publish this information on their websites for all to see. Anyway, I have now contacted 'Democratic Services' to ask whether they can photocopy it all for me to collect from County Hall - they may make a charge, I am not sure - what I am sure about is that Carmarthenshire Council don't believe in making things easy! If I manage to acquire the information I shall do the Council's job for them (and help them achieve their 'Core Value' of transparency), and publish it on this blog.

A bit of an update now on a couple of recent items of interest. I notice that the £20,000 grant to the Scarlets is back on the Agenda for next Monday's Executive Board meeting. I have recently mentioned this here; I also notice that it looks like the decision will not go to full council; the report states; "Executive Decision required - yes, Council Decision Required - N/A". As I have said, this council has a bit of a preoccupation with rugby but I hope they take into account the latest figures on the whole Parc Y Scarlets finances, and maybe look back and consider the considerable cost to the taxpayer so far (please search for previous posts).

I see the Executive Board also approved one of the exempt items mentioned here , again it doesn't appear to be going to full council. The Towy Community Church have secured a 15 year loan from the Council for £270,000 to 'fill the funding gap' in their (I'm sure well meant) attempt to build an evangelical bowling alley and 'community' facility. They're doing well, and as I have said, it was only in May that the Council gave a capital grant of £280,000 to 'fill the funding gap'. I've got a bit of a 'funding gap' - shall I ask the Council to fill it? The Chief Executive said "If we didn't approve this we could lose £1.2 million that they have already accessed in funds from elsewhere" I am not sure what he means by "we could lose..."? The royal 'we' perhaps? Meryl Gravell referred to the project as the "biggest social enterprise in Carmarthenshire. That's what we need more of in the future" This could be the answer to our Leader's Social Care funding worries, the entire department could be taken over as an evangelical enterprise. Praise the Lord. I shall have to have a read of the 'living word', perhaps I've been missing something. And I presume this generosity with taxpayers money will extend to all religious groups in their efforts to serve the community?

For more on the matter of the Council's relationship with the Towy Community Church see Y Cneifiwr's latest post; Towy Church gets another £275,000 from Carmarthenshire

11th November; Today's South Wales Evening Post reports that Carmarthenshire Council has spend £100,000 on private detectives between 2008 and 2011;

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

No round of applause for Jacqui

Right then, today's meeting. I was pleased to meet @Towy71 at the door. As you will see from his blog (Orwellian Stuff), and to his great credit, he refused to sign the undertaking and was therefore not allowed in, in fact a large security guard was called just to make sure. He did however sign for a pass, but that wasn't enough. I and others reluctantly signed though I added the words "unlawful, undemocratic and not binding". It is appalling that we are being made to sign this to observe the meeting and to be honest, I am not sure if I can do it much longer.

I also asked for the external door to be left open, in case of fire, I was informed it would remain locked. The security guard was beginning to look restless at this point. I went and had a look after the meeting and now both sets of doors are firmly locked.

Anyway, with the ritual and guarded procession complete, and the prisoners safely locked into the Gallery, the meeting began. I noticed this time that the Chair, Vice Chair and Chief Exec made a belated grand entrance rather like X Factor judges and everyone had to stand (apart from me). The standing continued for the prayer but I was quite appalled to notice there was no mention of Remembrance, the fallen of this County, or a minutes silence, nothing. Still perhaps they had more important things on their minds as the meeting moved on to congratulations for some award for the PR team and the Carmarthenshire News (Council rag) - 'Kings of Spin' or something like that. There was a hearty round of applause. I'm sure the rest of Carmarthenshire values the council rag as much as they do ;).

Next came a rather special moment as Cllr Sian Caiach managed to attract the Chair's attention and add to the congratulatory mood by referring to myself in the Gallery ("Community Councillor Jacqui Thompson") and my winning the award for Best Political Blog for Wales and how good it was for Carmarthenshire - as you may imagine there was a stunned and prolonged silence from everyone in the Chamber (no hearty applause) before a speechless Ivor Jackson regained his composure with " on..." Priceless. This will also be in the Minutes - or at least it had better be!

Cllr Caiach then made a formal complaint regarding the Chief Executive's reluctance to provide a legal reason (any good reason actually) why he had blocked the vote of no confidence debate on the Leader, Meryl Gravell. No answer was given and she was told to put it in writing.

The next item of interest was to approve an increase in delegated power to the Head of Regeneration (Dave Gilbert) and Head of Economic Development (Wendy Walters) to approve grant funding for businesses from £5000 to £35,000. (I mentioned this here) Nobody argued that the grant itself wasn't a good thing but concerns were raised over the delegation itself and, for that amount of money, some involvement of elected members was advisable. These concerns (or 'scrutiny' as it is known in a democracy), were about declarations of interest etc to which Mr Gilbert stated he had no interests to declare with any business which had ever, or may in the future, recieve grant funding. Oh good. Unfortunately Ms Walters was not present to add such reassuring noises but her declarations can be seen here if you follow the links. Anyway, the Chief Executive was clearly annoyed at this line of questioning, forgot about the importance of democratic debate (again) and accused Councillors of attacking the integrity of officers. He even mentioned that they were putting the Council in a bad light bearing in mind there were members of the public in the gallery. I couldn't quite believe he'd said that, had he forgotten about the 8th June etc etc?

Then followed a report on 'bio-diversity' - very important of course and reassuring to know our flora and fauna is in the safe hands of Carmarthenshire Council. Yet another chance for our scrutinizing councillors to burst forth; Cllr Wooldridge took the opportunity to thank Eifion Bowen on behalf of the voles of Llanelli (or something like that, couldn't quite catch it) and Kevin Madge (Deputy Leader) commenced another lengthy, blustery and completely unecessary speech about butterflies.

There then followed a long, sustained attack on Cllr Sian Caiach and her continued objection to the siting of the new Furnace School in Llanelli. There must have been half an hour of (almost tearful) 'think of the children' dross and one accused her of merely attention seeking. Eventually Cllr Caiach was allowed to reply and reminded them she was not opposed to the new school per se, but the size and siting and she felt other areas of Llanelli would be placed at a disadvantage. She reminded them that despite the fact they all seemed to have this signed sealed and delivered there was still three weeks left of the public consultation and the whole planning process to go through yet. And neither, for that matter, was she the 'only objector'. Something in all this must have awoken my own Councillor, Tom Theophilus - he actually spoke! Of course many of us have objected to the closure of Pantycelyn in Llandovery and the siting of the new superschool (you can tell by the reaction to Cllr Caiach that any such public opposition to council policy is treated with utter contempt) Cllr Theophilus suddenly, and pointlessly, decided that he was opposed to the closure of Pantycelyn, and that the 'local gossip' that he, and several neighbouring councillors had remained completely silent at all of the public consultation meetings was just a "malicious rumour" (see previous Pantycelyn posts). Cllr Jackson also put his pennyworth in at this point as local member for Llandovery. Odd then that I hadn't heard him say a word at any of these meetings and that a few months ago the inscrutable Mr Sully (Education Head - also see previous posts) had publicly thanked the aforementioned councillors for their unstinting support over this whole closure programme!!

Beginning to lose the will to live I sat through a lengthy debate on convergence funding and how fantastic the council was in supporting local businesses (do local traders agree?), again with more bluster from Kevin Madge - who was almost silenced by a rebellious Councillor who mentioned the fact that the Council itself were selling off several industrial units in Glanaman.

The meeting closed and eventually we were mercifully released into the fresh air like one of Kevin Madge's butterflies.

In the interest of balance, and in the hope I get a mention, I will publish a link to the Minutes when they eventually materialise.

Update 10th November; Y Cneifiwr has blogged his observations of yesterday's meeting, excellent read as always; The vultures Circle over County Hall
I am also reminded that the reasons our local councillors have given for their absolute silence over the closure of Pantecelyn was that it would compromise their involvement in the planning decision for the new school. As that is some time away yet we have argued that that would be a seperate issue to closure - could their timely mention of opposition yesterday (after the final Statutory Notice consultation is over) be coincidental? or could it now excuse them from having to make any unpopular decisions when the planning application is eventually considered? Surely not...

Update 12th November; I have only just noticed (very remiss of me) this post from Barnet blogger, Mrs Angry who describes so well the determined resistance to public scrutiny, especially irritant bloggers, in this London borough, something we recognise so well here in Carmarthenshire; Broken Barnet - Watch it all fall down  

Monday, 7 November 2011

Even #dafter arrests in Wisconsin, USA

Online article from Political Scrapbook (@psbook) about camera/gun nonsense in the USA;

See full article for all the links and a video; Wisconsin bans concealed cameras (but concealed guns allowed)

"Eighteen people have been arrested for using cameras in the Wisconsin Assembly, while on the same day the state legislature enacted a law allowing Wisconsin residents to carry, erm, concealed weapons in the same building.
The “Concealed Camera Day at the Capitol” was organised through Facebook as a protest against the dual menaces of a ban on taking pictures in the assembly gallery and the changes to statewide gun law.
In the bewildering kerfuffle that ensued, the organiser of the protest, Matthew Rotschild, was fined $263.50 and arrested alongside seventeen other protesters for refusing to stop taking photos and being guilty of “prohibited” conduct in the state building.
The arrests recall an incident in the UK in which blogger Jacqui Thompson was arrested for filming a meeting of Carmarthenshire Council.
It seems that in Wisconsin, as in South West Wales, speech is free as long as the lens is covered up."

Source; Political Scrapbook
Previous article by @psbook from July ; Council at centre of filming row locks doors to public meeting 

Chief Executive still blocking debate on future of Council leader

Following on from recent posts, This blog has had site of further correspondence between Cllrs Sian Caiach and Arthur Davies and the Chief Executive, Mr James. This is, of course, related to Wednesday's (Nov 9th) meeting of full council and the refusal to place on the Agenda their motion for a No Confidence vote in council leader Meryl Gravell originally submitted in time for October's meeting. Further to the Chief Executive's previous letter (which can be read in the second of the posts mentioned above), the two councillors asked for some clarification;

Dear Mr. James
Notice of Motion
Thank you for your letter of November 1 which is rather confusing so perhaps you would be kind enough to clarify a few points;

1. Just to confirm dates, could you please confirm the date that the council first received our notice of motion?
2. Whilst you indicate that you have obtained legal advice you have not included a copy of the legal advice referred to, kindly correct this oversight by return. On sight of the council’s legal advice we will then obtain pro bono legal advice.
3. In your last paragraph and I quote,
"Given the controversy you have sought to engender on this matter, I have copied this response to all three Group Leaders, given it was they who wanted the change made by the council’s constitution and instructed the officers to review it." Could you please indicate when and where their request was made supplying the council minute that authorised it?

Finally, we note your apology for the delay and anticipate in future your responses will be prompt and helpful. In the interim as we do not agree with your position and as you have supplied no clear evidence to omit this issue on the agenda we insist that the issue is added to the agenda.
Yours sincerely
Cllrs Caich and Davies

Mr James has responded at some length (and no less confusingly) but fails to include any legal advice supporting his opinion, perhaps he hopes the other recipients will give up half way, or quite possibly drift off  before they realise there's no punchline ie legal advice.
Yet again the two Cllrs are reprimanded for not going directly to him for advice on all procedural matters; I would have thought they have every right to seek independent legal advice in fact, under the circumstances it is clearly advisable to do so.
There is no real explanation as to why the motion is being rejected. Mr James somehow regards the new rules as retrospective because the new constitution was democratically voted in. An opinion, but not obviously a legal one. He is of the opinion that a motion submitted a month in advance under the old constitution is not acceptable to him. He uses a council procedure rule which suggests that he believes that a motion of no confidence in the Council leader is not appropriate for discussion in that meeting, I would have thought full council would be an entirely appropriate place - in fact the only appropriate place. The motion is described as "incongruous" [definition; not congruous or agreeing, not mixing well together etc] so presumably not welcome in a council requiring consensus?
If there is no need for written or external legal advice to be sought by the Council, as apparently all advice is usually given internally through unrecorded discourse with in-house lawyers, how, as councillors can they be legally informed or scrutinise decisions? They are being asked to accept that undocumented legal advice given to the Chief Executive cannot be revealed to or checked by councillors, yet it is being acted upon? And, ironically, the two Councillors are criticised for suggesting that officers, not councillors, run this council....
Significantly, the Council's Constitution, as published on their website remains 'un-amended' as of today's date (7th November) with regards the requirement for 7 councillors to sign a motion.
Anyway, for the record, here's Mr James' response;

From; Mark James
Sent; 07 November 2011 10:00
To; Cllr. Sian M Caiach; Cllr. Arthur Davies
Cc; Cllr. Meryl Gravell; Cllr. Pamela A Palmer; Cllr. Peter Hughes-Griffiths; Cllr. Kevin Madge; Cllr. Marion P Binney; Cllr. John P Jenkins; Cllr. Huw Lewis
Subject: FW: Notice of Motion -People First Group's response to Chief Executive second rejection of our Notice of Motion in his letter date 1st November 2011

Dear Cllrs Caiach and Davies,

I refer to the three separate e mails that you have sent regarding this matter. I note that you refer above to a second rejection of your Notice of Motion. I am a little confused over this as this is the first and only time you have submitted a Notice of Motion in this format. I have not previously seen a Notice of Motion in these terms and therefore have not previously rejected such.
May I with respect remind you of my previous correspondence in which I asked that any communication on procedural matters be referred to my office. Neither Mr Davies nor any other officers will be able to assist with such matters and they are being referred to my office, as per my instruction. In order to avoid delay, please send any such questions you have direct.
As set out in my response to Cllr Davies, there is no provision in the Council’s constitution regarding amendments by Council. There is certainly no legal requirement to refer any such procedural amendments to the Secretary of State, Minister or anyone else. Whoever has given you this advice is mistaken.
Given the lack of specific provision and indeed lack of precedent, it is arguable probably both ways as to when such decisions ought to be implemented. Notices of Motion are usually submitted within the life cycle of Council meetings when the rules are clear. Your Notice, however, was submitted far in advance of your identified Council meeting in the knowledge that the rules were to be debated within days, and indeed the rules did change within days (and well in advance of the Council Meeting you were targetting). Whilst your Notice fulfilled the requirements of the rules subsisting at the time of submission they did not fulfil the rules applying to the meeting in question. CPR 12.4 provides that I shall not accept a Notice of Motion which cannot be considered "at the meeting for which it is given". Your Notice of Motion did not fulfil the conditions applying to Notices to be considered at the Council Meeting of the 9th November. Given that ambiguity, it would be highly incongruous for an officer of the Council to go against the explicit democratically agreed view of Council and follow a procedure for a particular meeting, which has been amended, specifically stopping that action taking place.
I am surprised that you would wish me as an officer to follow such a course, given your highly personalised attacks on officers recently for ‘leading the Council’ and not doing what you as elected members wish to see. Perhaps, and forgive me for being somewhat forthright, but you only wish officers to do this when it suits your purposes. On this occasion, it does not suit your purposes, so you wish me to frustrate the will of Council. With respect, you cannot have it both ways.
I have made my decision on the matter. It is perhaps now academic with regard to the next Council meeting. It is open to you to re-submit the Notice of Motion, with the requisite number of signatures for the next meeting of Council.
With regard to legal advice, when appropriate, such advice is taken often internally of course and through discourse with lawyers. There is no need for written or external advice and that is the case on this occasion.
With regard to requests for reports to be prepared, such requests are often made in advance of meetings, when officers are requested to prepare papers. You are well aware of the democratic route this report took as you have asked and had a response from my legal colleagues on the matter.
Yours sincerely
Mark James
Chief Executive

Any the wiser....?!

Fire hazards - complaint to the Council

With Wednesday's full council meeting looming on the horizon I am hoping, as I have said before, that others will join me in requesting that the entry restrictions are lifted. In the interests of safety, if nothing else, I expect there now to be free, unhindered access to and from the Public Gallery to the outside world.
Some hope.
I emailed the Fire Service last week with my concerns and incorporated it into a complaint to the Council (see below).I had an immediate acknowledgement from the Fire Service (as an emergency service, I do not expect them to leap into action). A couple of days later I had an acknowledgement from the Council who said my complaint had been passed on to the inappropriately named Democratic Services as a 'Stage 1' complaint to be dealt with by the 15th November. No wonder people are turned off complaining. Anyhow, any response will be posted here.

"Dear Sir
By way of complaint to Carmarthenshire Council please see the email below as sent to the Carmarthen Fire Office. Please could the council officer responsible for the safety of members of the public in County Hall respond to me personally, via email about my concerns as outlined below. the public, when visiting the Gallery are clearly at risk:

To the Chief Fire Officer,
I am writing with concern about the fire safety regulations at County Hall Carmarthen. As a regular visitor to the public gallery I was disturbed to discover that members of the public are in effect, locked into the building. A phone is provided to summon staff to escort you out of the building and you are told a) To remain in the public gallery in the event of fire and wait for assistance and, contradictory to that, b)all the locks automatically unlock if the fire alarm sounds. Requests to the Council revealed that no fire assessment had been carried out with members of the public in the Gallery in mind, nor had they ever been involved in a fire drill. I attended the public gallery today (31st October) and was very concerned, I was actually trapped in the stairwell leading to the gallery. I was exiting the gallery and used the phone provided to call staff to escort me through the locked doors and out of the building. The phone was engaged and despite several attempts, remained so. I opened that door myself, which locked behind me only to discover I was unable to open the external fire exit at the bottom of the stairwell. Fortunately I had my mobile phone so was able to get through to reception (eventually) and two members of staff escorted me out.
The whole regime which has recently been introduced is putting members of the public at risk. Could the fire service please contact the council and ensure the access and exit procedures to and from the public gallery are made safe. I am also contacting Carmarthenshire County Council. I believe complaints have already been made earlier in the summer. I would appreciate if you could report back to me on your findings, if possible.

Many thanks for your time
Jacqui Thompson"

As an aside, I was interested to note that the Mid and West Wales Fire Authority which has five Carmarthenshire Councillors on it's Board, regularily podcast's it's meetings.

And an interesting post today on 'Wales Home' by Peter Black AM on twittering etc in the Senedd and elsewhere;

Update; I have seen email correspondence from the Fire Officer to the Council which states that the "exit doors from the Gallery area" (I presume he means the external doors?) are "by the way, fine" - As I said, they would not open last Monday....unless of course he has now used the repeated and forceful action of a size 12 Fireman's boot...? I never thought of doing that but then again I only have girly feet, which would clearly be useless in a fire....

Update 8th November;

The Noxious Fumes of County Hall

Well, the Council haven't dragged their feet this time, although the swift response may have something to do with the fact there's a full council meeting tomorrow (10am, County Hall) and I have indicated I will attend. I hear others will be joining me. Needless to say my complaint has been dismissed. My comments are in blue;

Dear Mrs. Thompson
Thank you for your communication which was received on Tuesday 1st November 2011
In accordance with the Corporate Complaints Procedure I have considered your complaint. ( ref no: 1146066 )
Your complaint alleges that the procedures the Council has put in place for the public to access the public gallery jeopardise fire safety in that the public are locked in to the stairwell. In support of that you cite the incident which happened to you last week when you found yourself trapped in the stairwell and the telephone arrangements for being released from the stairway were inadequate.
The example you give is an unfair one in that you are comparing the arrangements which are in place on normal days to the arrangements which are in place in times of fire.

This is not unfair, it demonstrates a failed system, I would have thought 'arrangements' should be the same for either occasion with public safety part of both - although we know that public safety is nothing to do with it all.

On normal days the procedure in place is that the public are escorted to the public gallery and have to phone the democratic services unit when they want to leave because they do not have security cards to open the doors. I do not consider this arrangement to be improper. County Hall is a working office and security arrangements need to be in place to prevent the public from wandering at will.

There is nothing 'normal' about these arrangements. Prior to June 8th the exterior door was always open and the public could access the gallery unaided and without being able to access the rest of the building or 'wander at will'.

In times of fire the security door at the foot of the stairwell will automatically release whilst the external door at the foot of the stairwell will have been opened. Whilst egress from the public gallery will be unobstructed, visitors to the public gallery must comply with the fire evacuation procedure they have been asked to follow so that they can be led to safety along an appropriate escape route by a fully trained Fire Warden. It may be that the seat of the fire is in the stairwell itself and opening the door to the stairwell will therefore only serve to fuel the fire with more oxygen and allow the spread of noxious fumes. The Fire Warden will decide on the most appropriate route and note the names of those visitors he/she recovers so that they can be discounted from the visitors’ log for the building.

This is disingenuous, members of the public have only had to give their names etc since the 8th June, it has nothing to do with fire safety and everything to do with monitoring who is observing the meetings and preventing anyone attending who hasn't signed the unlawful undertaking.

You found yourself in the position you did on the day in question because you were impatient and were not prepared to wait until the telephone extension number was free, so much so that you exited the public gallery yourself and put yourself in the position of being in the stairwell with no office telephone or means of exiting the stairwell. You were not in danger at any time as there was no fire. Had there been a fire the security door would have released and the external door at the foot of the stairwell would have been open.
In light of the above I do not consider your complaint to be valid.

I was not 'impatient', I tried the phone six times, I then assumed the exterior door would be open (at least from the inside). I realise there was no fire, and of course I was in no danger, I simply should have been able to get out via the fire door. If this door, as the email states, has to be opened in time of fire then let's just hope someone, with a key and a good memory, remembers to do it

I have however reviewed the procedure for contacting the democratic services unit following your experience on 31/10/11 and in future there will be a choice of two extension numbers to telephone with the second number automatically diverting the call to a third telephone extension after 6 rings in the unlikely event of there being no response. This should ensure that there will always be someone available to answer a call from the public gallery.

Good, although an entirely ridiculous situation.

In so far as your complaint that no fire assessment has been carried out with the public in the gallery in mind, this is incorrect in that this area is covered by the Fire Officer as part of his annual inspection of the building and no adverse comments have been received to date regarding the arrangements in place for the evacuation of visitors from the public gallery. I can confirm that the Authority’s fire management plan, prepared in accordance with the Fire Precautions (Workplace) Regulations 1997 (as amended) does contain provisions as to members of the public. For example, it states that "Fire Wardens are designated to check all sections of the building".

Let's hope, until the 'arrangments' are lifted, their 'fire management plan' isn't put to the test. I wouldn't trust a Carmarthenshire Council 'management plan' to ensure my safety nor anything else for that matter.

You have made this complaint to the Fire Authority, of course, and the Council will await their response.
In the meantime, however, the Council does not uphold your complaint.
If you should not be happy with the response given and wish to proceed to the next stage of the Complaints Process then please contact; The Complaints Team, Chief Executives Department, County Hall, Carmarthen, SA31 1JP or Tel; 01267 224488, or email;

Yours sincerely
Democratic Services Manager

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Poetry Please

For a brief change of tempo I am posting a couple of thoughtful poems written by younger residents of Carmarthenshire. The first was written by a 13 year old boy, it was then selected to be published in an anthology. The second was written by a year 7 pupil at the soon to be closed Pantycelyn School, Llandovery. Both suggest that not everyone shares the same ‘vision’ for the future of Carmarthenshire as dictated by those who think they know better in County Hall;


First it was a Roman town a Roman legion army town.
Then it was a Merlin town a castle and an oak tree town.
Then it was a Tudor town a dead dog leaking sewage town.
Then it was a Georgian town a big wig plump my pillow town.
Then it was a Victorian town a toll gate and Rebecca town.
Then it was a war town a joining up and dying town
Now it is a Tesco town a shop till you drop I want one town.

By Jeno, 13 years

Carmarthenshire in 2020

Carmarthenshire is thriving,
And people are buying,
But in the North-East
Llandovery is dying

It’s been a few years now,
Since the school has been killed!
The shops are deserted,
The streets have been stilled!

We’re in darkness now
And no one knows who
Is going to help us
And carry us through.

2020 is the year
And the town has no sound.
Pantycelyn is dead!
Nobody around.

When the funeral is over
And the people are down.
Who will remember
This proud Drovers town?

All businesses failing,
Too weak to fight!
Will the last to leave
Please turn out the light!

By Caitlin, year 7, Pantycelyn School

As nothing get’s a message across quite like well penned verse, please send in your contributions, humorous or otherwise. As long as it’s clean, non-libellous and related to issues concerning Carmarthenshire I will consider publishing it on the blog!

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Transparency - Monmouthshire CC leading the way

It's not often I feel inspired to write anything positive about our Welsh Councils but one in particular has impressed me this evening. Monmouthshire County Council have become the first Welsh council to adopt the Open Government Licence which means that anyone can use any thing on their website, and any data for individual, or commercial use. If this wasn't enough they are also running an effective and responsive Twitter account @MonmouthshireCC, a blog, and (and this is the really impressive bit) they are happy for members of the public to film their meetings.

I suggest other Welsh councils, particularly Carmarthenshire, who are rapidly sinking into the abyss of medieval feudalism, have a look at what's going on here and follow the lady who is clearly the inspiration behind it all, @HelReynolds 

I realise there are residents of Monmouthshire who have issues with their Council and probably have views contrary to the message in this post. However, any moves towards a culture of openness are at least a start to improving accessibility and should be welcomed.

Update 7th November;
I have now learned, thanks to Tweets from the CEO @pmtmomam and @MonmouthshireCC that this Council are publishing their spending details online. Along with the issue of filming, this was one of the subjects of my petitions to the Welsh Assembly,  both still under consideration. This is excellent news and (correct me if I'm wrong) a first for Wales - worlds apart from Carmarthenshire.

Those Armchair Auditors of Monmouthshire can now analyse the information and see if their money is being spent wisely! 
 (scroll to bottom of page)