Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Request refused - the Council and the Towy Community Church

Another item which failed to appear in the council's accounts yesterday (see previous couple of posts) was any reference to their evangelical 'partners', the Towy Community Church and the 'bowling alley' Excel Project. Given the 'manipulation' of the figures for the Council's pravda it would appear their generosity to this organisation to the tune of £1.4m was similarly untraceable in the open accounts.

The controversial relationship between the Council and the church has been much documented on this blog and elsewhere including in the press, and concerns have been raised about the possible establishment of a 'Mercy Ministry' alongside the bowling alley, so that presumably the fallen women of Carmarthen can be exorcised and score a strike at the same time. This is looking increasingly likely as the organisation intends to open 'therapy and counselling' facilities. as well as a church hall. The council has consistently failed to comment on the controversies surrounding the whole project, other than Meryl Gravell claiming that it will ease the pressure on the social care budget.

Anyway, several weeks ago I made a Freedom of Information request to the council for all correspondence between themselves and the Towy Church, the deadline arrived and it was refused under cost grounds. I found the response difficult to believe but I then made a new request limiting it to correspondence relating only to the 'Excel Project', the deadline passed yesterday, but this morning I had a response. It was refused again for exactly the same reasons.

I believe the cost limit has been falsely applied. I will request an internal review and if that is unsuccessful, which not doubt it will be, I shall be off to the Information Commissioner again. Please see full thread of the request here.

Offices of the Towy Community Church as featured on BBC Wales

The council rag and creative accounting

Hat tip to Cneifiwr for publishing the latest press release from Plaid's Rhodri Glyn Thomas. Carmarthenshire's AM accuses the council of creative accounting over the propaganda sheet, the Carmarthenshire News. I mentioned this in my previous post including the fact that it does not appear anywhere in the council's accounts, a theme common with everything else that might be considered a controversial use of public money.

Mr Thomas said;

“My concern is extremely simple – The County Council says it receives £18,000 in advertising and sponsorship revenue per edition but it has since told me it cannot distinguish between adverts that are paid for internally and externally.  The county newspaper is loaded with adverts which the local authority itself provides.  So how much of that £18,000 is from coming within the council’s taxpayer-funded budgets?
 “The Council has also told me it would be impossible to look back to previous years and assess the costs of internal adverts as it would involve going through every edition.  Sadly the Council has not kept a copy of them.  Either the Council doesn’t want to admit how much of taxpayers’ money is actually being put into these publications or it has serious problems with its financial management.
 “The County Council could be paying anything up to £23,000 for each edition - that's up to £138,000 a year.  For it to suggest the net cost to the taxpayer is just £5,000 per edition is disingenuous and smacks of creative accountancy"
(See full statement on Cneifiwr's blog)

With the recent accusations of blackmail and acting like a dictatorship, it looks like the gloves are off between our local AM and MP and the council. I hope they keep it up.

Council Accounts...and the value of Freedom of Information

Today was the day that several of us ventured into County Hall today to view the accounts. It was never going to be straightforward and it certainly wasn't. I had forwarded, in advance, a list of specific areas we wished to view only to be told on Friday that it would not be possible to supply the requested details.

On arrival a friendly officer had clearly drawn the short straw and was tasked with guiding us through the mire. It soon became clear that to see the details we had initially requested was going to be a problem with the information provided. It seemed that anything connected with individual projects, particularly controversial ones, didn't appear to exist on the accounts, well not in any identifiable form, in fact nothing much was in identifiable form at all. Could we have the purchase ledgers, or a simple tot up of total spends on selected areas, one of our number asked? The helpful officer went off to ask his boss, no we couldn't, and we couldn't have it 'electronically' either "....we don't know where it might end up". Not for the first time he whispered that very few people inspect the accounts these days, everyone uses Freedom of Information. I am not surprised.

I also find it very unlikely that the details of the areas requested could not have been provided, probably at the touch of a button. In fact, the helpful officer did illustrate exactly how easy this would have been by giving us an immediate printout of consultancy fees associated with the Eastgate development in Llanelli, £1.5m for 2011/12 in case you're interested. Another list was provided for consultants fees which amounted to £157,000 but oddly this didn't include the Eastgate consultants, nor the £9,000 for a 'retail critique' provided by Nathaniel Lichfield Partnership. The total bill for consultancies remains unknown, scattered to the four corners of the accounts. Clearly their software was searchable so why the smoke and mirrors were necessary I don't know.

One area of interest was the council rag, the Carmarthenshire News, this was unidentifiable and buried somewhere deep within the press/comms section, when I got home the BBC had provided the information anyway with the publication of a Welsh Government report on the whole subject (more fence sitting by the sound of it), it costs £138,000 a year offset, apparently, by advertising revenue of £108,000. As I have said previously, nearly all this 'advertising revenue' comes from other council departments and other public bodies such as Dyfed Powys Police.

On the same subject we'd asked for details of SirGarPR the council's commercially branded 'professional PR agency' which apparently deals with every PR whim of the council, police, health board etc etc and any approved 'partner organisation' which may require it's services. Never heard of it, said the helpful officer. Entries such as 'birthday presents and gifts' were again unidentifiable, we must assume these were for children in care or something similar and not a set of golf clubs for some officer's special day.

The upshot of the whole exercise was that FoI requests are a much better way of extracting (or trying to extract) the information we wanted, so apologies in advance to the FoI officer as there will be several on their way in the near future. The other option of course would be for the council to publish all the transaction and spending details online, something councils all over the UK have managed to do quite easily, even a couple in Wales. Somehow, I don't think it'll ever happen in Carmarthenshire. Even the entries of election expenses failed to reveal the £20,000 of Returning Officer fees included, so they say, with the Chief Executive's salary. 
So, in Carmarthenshire, FoI is all we've got.

In a few weeks, the Wales Audit Office will sign off the accounts and they, as we all have to, will trust that it's all present and correct and the right boxes are ticked. The accounts are presented in a way which defies members of the public from making any objections to the external auditors; to extract the invoices, receipts and transaction details would take most people, even if they managed to overcome the well placed obstacles, weeks and probably take them well beyond the allotted period for public inspection.

There was a large whiteboard in the room we were in and several of us were tempted to leave some constructive suggestions to assist the council in their future accounting procedures, but we didn't. 

Back to FoI's it is then.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Brief Encounters and Alarm Bells

I've noticed that the Executive Board portfolio for 'Modernising Local Government' has disappeared from the new list of 'responsibilities'. You may remember that this title was previously, and astonishingly, held by the leader of the Independent Party, Cllr Pam Palmer who's little foray into the world of twitter was as memorable as her comments prior to my arrest in June 2011; "I think there are rules about people filming children" she said, as I attempted to film a council meeting with the average age of Members at around 70 and not a child in sight. 

Leader of the Council, Kevin Madge has made his morbid fear of twitter publicly known, and I'm sure Meryl's brief encounter with You Tube has left her feeling similarly panic stricken. So, perhaps it's not surprising that the portfolio has been quietly dropped along with modernising Carmarthenshire Council generally. 

Meryl Gravell on You Tube

It was as recently as January that I witnessed the (not uncommon) sight of Cllr Palmer glaring at Cllr Caiach for suggesting that existing audio equipment could be used to record meetings. Clearly concerned that her tones would be forever immortalised on tape she vowed she'd never agree if it cost 'one penny' on the budget. All this perhaps explains the venomous tone of the 'webcasting pilot' recommendation included in the 'Forward Work Programme', the title and contents of which, by anyone's standards, should be questioned under the Trades Description Act (or is it the Advertising Standards Authority, either will do).

Other councils, as we know, take a slightly more open attitude to sharing information and welcoming the public. A Shropshire Council recently discussed publishing councillors business connections, spending details over £100, members of the public filming meetings, public question time, etc etc. In comparison, and to give an example, Carmarthenshire council has even removed the allowance search for individual councillors from their website.

As for spending details, our council prides itself in publishing absolutely nothing unless persuaded by determined  FoI requesters. The chance, therefore, to inspect the accounts is an opportunity not to be missed. I hope, by the time several of us arrive at County Hall on Monday, the ledgers are already well-thumbed by concerned taxpayers.

But as is usual with our council, nothing is quite so straightforward. I contacted the Accounts department a couple of weeks ago to book our slot in the dungeons on Jail Hill. That was fine, said the very helpful lady I initially spoke to, yes, she could find a suitable room to accommodate several people and would also be very grateful for a list of specific areas we'd like to look at so as they could 'prepare' the necessary material for our convenience.

I duly emailed our list and received a pleasant acknowledgement on Wednesday; "thank you for the list of specific areas etc which will enable us to do some preparatory work and save time on Monday". Oh good.
By Friday however, alarm bells had seemingly rung somewhere in County Hall and a lengthy email arrived saying that due to the current system of accounting, it would be impossible to provide the material I had asked for. Oh dear.

I am fully aware of the enormous budget handled by the council and I am sure their systems are highly complex but is this 'public inspection' only suitable for expert auditors and trained accountants? Was it the contents of the list? Or was it the thought of several unnamed individuals, one of whom is a trained auditor, in the company of Caebrwyn, rifling through the files which is causing difficulties?

In addition to this change of heart was the sudden demand, on Friday, for a list of the names of those who would be attending. I had already given my name of course. This request was repeated later in the day in a brusque email from the head of service.  I felt a response to this was unnecessary as not only will we be, undoubtedly, required to 'sign in' on Monday and possibly sign-up to the Carmarthenshire Council Official Secrets Act, but our mugshots will be filmed by the cameras in Reception.

I'll let you know how we get on.

Carmarthenshire Council - a brief mention in Private Eye

As I have reported, Carmarthenshire Council's latest escapades into the sordid world of press censorship and blackmail have brought them back in the spotlight again over recent days.
I also noticed another brief mention of our Council, in passing, in this week's edition of Private Eye.
Here it is;

"Alarming news from the libel courts, where a university is being allowed to bring a claim against a sacked lecturer over the contents of his blog - despite a long standing rule that public bodies cannot sue for defamation.
The principle that public bodies must take criticism on the chin was laid down in 1993 by Lord Keith in Derbyshire County Council v Times Newspapers, in which he dismissed the authority's attempts to use public funds to sue for defamation. While councils such as South Tyneside and Carmarthenshire may have appeared forgetful on this point (Eyes passim), the parliamentary bill committee working on libel reform has discussed making the 'Derbyshire principle' statutory.
However, the University of Salford is trying to sue former staff member Gary Duke over allegedly defamatory comments, posted online which criticised the university, it's vice-chancellor and registrar. An interim decision by Mr Justice Hickinbottom in the Royal Courts of Justice says the district court acted properly in allowing the university's claim to stand. Unless the parties settle, the case will now go to the high court for judges to decide on the vital Derbyshire principle."

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Carmarthenshire to pilot webcasting?....through gritted teeth

Further to Executive Board hits the road, the mystery surrounding the overtly political sounding item on Monday's Executive Board agenda 'Partnership agreement between the Labour Party and the Independent Group - Working together for a better Carmarthenshire' has been solved as we are now provided with a link. It is, as suspected, little more than a PR piece rather than anything of substance. It's all very aspirational and reads like a manifesto ('We will endeavour blah blah...'), there is nothing new and just follows the programme from the previous officer-led administration. Which is not surprising as nothing has changed. We can also safely assume that the budget cuts to the most vulnerable, such as SEN provision and elderly care are safely on the way to implementation. No sign of second thoughts either about the apparently vital services such as the evangelical bowling alley or the council rag. As if!

In true PR style, the document leads with perhaps the most hypocritical and nonsensical piece; 'Promoting Local Democracy and Transparency'. I believe my cynicism is well founded. I can't even begin to describe how far removed the council's concept of 'openness' is from the rest of the real world, yesterday's blogpost concerning press control is just one example, and the oppressive and unlawful entry ritual to the public gallery will hardly 'encourage more people to come along...'

The section ends with news that the committee review of e-government will recommend a trial of filming and webcasting council meetings. It all sounds a little bitter and appears to have been written between well-gritted teeth and is hardly in the spirit of 'promoting transparency'. I am also amazed, given present circumstances, with the use of the word 'frivolous' in the first sentence.
Having said all that it would be extremely churlish of me not to welcome such a move, as presumably I am the single campaigner referred to. I also hope the recommendations include how members of the public, who wish to make their own recordings, will be welcomed with open arms. Anyway, I suggest they take the pilot forward without delay, or that 'single campaigner' will be back with her camera when meetings kick off again in the Autumn.

Whilst we are anxious not to waste local taxpayer’s money with frivolous or perceived populist ideas, we will shortly receive the findings of the Policy and Resources Scrutiny Committee review of E-Government which is recommending that the council trial the filming and webcasting of Council meetings. Such a pilot would enable us to judge whether there is a genuine interest across the County with ordinary members of the public, rather than single campaigners
(Taken from the document)


Update to previous post; County Hall and press control
Press Gazette reports on Carmarthenshire Council's threat to the South Wales Guardian. There is a quote from the General Secretary of the National Union of Journalists; 
Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said: “It is wholly unacceptable for a local authority or any other public body to withdraw advertising from a newspaper as a reaction to what it sees as negative publicity about itself.  The freedom of the press is a cornerstone of our democracy and one of the most important roles of the NUJ is to defend that principle. Attempting to suppress healthy public debate is no business of a local authority and I hope Carmarthenshire County Council will recognise its mistake and give a firm undertaking not to act in this way again.”
(The Wire)
..and in The Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/greenslade/2012/jul/27/local-newspapers-advertising
...and Hold The Front Page; http://www.holdthefrontpage.co.uk/2012/news/council-pulls-advert-after-paper-publishes-negative-story/
....and just in case anyone was wondering that this was a one off, it happens quite frequently, here's one article from 2009; http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/2009/12/21/am-attacks-council-decision-to-stop-advertising-in-local-paper-91466-25435275/

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

County Hall and press control - MP's letter to the Leader

Further to my previous post 'MP calls Carmarthenshire Council a 'Dictatorship' I now have a copy of the letter sent earlier this month to the Leader of the Council, Kevin Madge from Plaid MP Jonathan Edwards and AM, Rhodri Glyn Thomas. Jonathan Edwards has become something of a champion of the local press recently and a critic of council tactics concerning editorial control. I hope they follow this through and maybe we could finally get some answers as to how this dictatorial behaviour from County Hall has been allowed to continue for so long.

Constituency Office
37 Wind Street
11th July 2012
Cllr K Madge - Leader
Carmarthenshire County Council
County Hall

Dear Councillor Madge,

Withdrawal of County Council advertising in local newspapers

We have been provided with a copy of an e-mail sent from the County Council’s Press Manager in which instructions are given to cancel two advertisements with the South Wales Guardian newspaper on the basis of the paper’s “negative publicity” of the County Council. We understand this follows the paper’s story on possible delays to the regeneration work in Ammanford.

You will no doubt be aware that a number of members of Ammanford Town Council are themselves traders in the town. As democratically elected members of that Town Council, they have every right to state their opinions and make representations on behalf of their electors. The South Wales Guardian, along with other newspaper publications, has the legitimate right to report the business of that and any other Council. As politicians we accept it when newspapers are critical of us. But at the end of the day it is the role of publications like the South Wales Guardian to hold politicians and public authorities to account. The decision by your County Council to remove advertising completely undermines the notion of free press – a founding element of any democracy.

Newspapers right throughout the county are already facing tough economic challenges – not helped by the fact local authorities spend more time and effort producing its own propaganda publications rather than investing in their local print media. The actions by the County Council do nothing but suppress criticism and remove vital funding from these community assets.

We would be grateful to know whether you were aware of this decision; whether you approve of the removal of advertising from the South Wales Guardian; and whether you instructed the Press Manager to take this course of action. If you do not agree with that action, we would be grateful to know what disciplinary action you will be taking on this matter.

We can arrive at no other conclusion than to consider the Council’s bully boy tactics as an outrageous form of blackmail more befitting the sort of actions seen in dictatorships. We look forward to your urgent response.
Yours sincerely,

Jonathan Edwards MP
Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM

The National Union of Journalists has also condemned the council's behaviour;
Council punished weekly for negative coverage
(see also next post)

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Executive Board hits the road

As predicted by Cneifiwr recently, the high spot of the Executive Board's day out to Ammanford Town Hall next Monday will be the announcement of a couple of months free parking whilst the town undergoes public works. Kevin Madge, the new Leader, will have to make the most of this for the weekly photo opportunities as the rest of the Agenda is not quite so thrilling. Even Item 11 on the Agenda 'Partnership agreement between the Labour Party and the Independent Group "Working together for a better Carmarthensire" doesn't sound too promising when Carmarthenshire is spelled incorrectly. Still, we will have to anticipate the contents as there is no link to this top secret document yet, I expect that senior officers of the Authority are busy drafting the final version to hand over to the two leaders. One can only imagine the Kev and Pam waffle that will be announced, just in time for the local press deadlines on Monday afternoon. I predict there will be extensive but inaccurate use of the words 'deliver' and 'promise' peppered throughout. And not much else. Further photo opportunities may prevail though with Kev and Pam embracing before the camera...eyes gazing into the future...

Another item on the agenda is an update on the Council's Modernising Education Programme as it bulldozes and strives to close all schools in Carmarthenshire and open a super-super-school, I doubt they'd have trouble finding an obliging landowner with enough acreage to spare....
I'm joking of course.
The report to be considered on Monday details the progress so far, and the proposals for the forthcoming year. I am particularly interested in the area close to me where a bitter fight to save Pantycelyn School, Llandovery, from closure (many previous posts) travels to the Court of Appeal on Friday where campaigners will bid to try and overturn a previous decision to refuse permission for a Judicial Review. I wish them the best of luck. 
The closure of this school will have a devastating effect on the town, and I believe, the education and well-being of local children. As we know, the council has a general aversion to 'campaigners', and use scaremongering tactics to divide communities and push through it's plans, the attitude towards this group are no exception; the report states that; "It is of increasing concern that this legal action by a relatively small number of people is placing the effective education of children in the region at increasing risk" I would argue that it was the council's flawed decision to close the school in the first place that has caused uncertainty and risk, and the complete failure of the local Members Cllrs Theophilus and Jackson, to utter one word of disquiet against closure hasn't helped much either. No wonder the Director of Education, Robert Sully gave Cllr Theophilus such a warm cuddle after the election count. The primary schools of Llanwrda and Llansadwrn are next for the chop, I wonder if they'll pipe up then?

Update 25th July
ITV report that the campaigners have lost the final legal battle to prevent the County Council closing Pantycelyn School. It appears that the council will be free to continue to fiddle and fix consultations for years to come.

"The Court of Appeal has rejected Ysgol Pantycelyn Action Group's fight to save the school in Llandovery from closure. They have been fighting since September last year to get Carmarthenshire County Council to reverse its decision to close the school.
The authority is planning to merge the 11 to 19 secondary school with Tregib, near Llandeilo, and to build a new, larger facility on a different site. Lord Justice Maurice Kay today refused the group permission to take their case any further.
The school had argued that the council had "fiddled and fixed" the consultation, but that was rejected by the judge.
But Lord Justice Maurice Kay said it was clear that the action group was able to "have its say" through the consultation into school reform in the county.
The school's closure is part of a £50m project to reorganise secondary education in the area and the plans are currently under consideration by the Welsh Government"
ITV website

That's the way to do it! Back to May 2008

Whilst sorting through paperwork the other day I came across an article from the Carmarthen Journal dated the 31st May 2008, just after the previous election. You have to remember that those were the heady days when the Public Gallery was blogger-free and scrutiny was left to the local paper (who were having problems with their neighbours in County Hall even then) and the redoubtable Cllr Caiach. It concerned multiple amendments to the constitution, one of which, buried deep and unnoticed within the documentation was the one enabling officers to bring actions for defamation funded by the taxpayer.
Over the past few years we have seen gradual changes channelling more and more power into the hands of unelected senior officers whilst the role of elected members continues to diminish, usually under spurious and undefined references to 'keeping up with current legislation'.
Here's the 2008 article which explains how it's done. Tactics such as 'it would be unlawful not to approve at the meeting' and 'you'll have to challenge it after it's approved' (nigh on impossible) are used to effect. Added to the peculiar sense of urgency is the reliance that nobody has had time/bothered to read the details;

"Carmarthenshire Council has agreed changes to it's constitution, even though some councillors did not have a chance to read the documents beforehand. Members were asked to agree the constitution which includes changes in line with legislation affecting departments and the role of councillors and the Executive Board.
However, concern was raised that a small number of councillors had not recieved the bulky 80 - plus page document before the full council meeting.
This was despite assurances from chief Executive Mark James that the document had been posted days before the meeting to all 74 councillors.
Councillors said the document was too large to go through letter boxes and they were forced to pick it up from the sorting office.
Hengoed Councillor, Sian Caiach said; "I know of at least three members, not including myself, who had to request the council send the constitution again. We have not had time to read it, so how can we approve it? Can't this matter be deferred to the next council meeting to give councillors a chance to read the constitution?"
Mr James said councils across Wales were agreeing to constitutions following the elections and that it would be unlawful not to approve Carmarthenshire Council's constitution at the meeting.
Cllr Pam Palmer added; "Why can't the rest of the council approve the constitution? If only three councillors have not recieved the document, would it make that much difference? If the councillors who have not got it have any concerns, they can bring them up at a later date"
Councillor Kevin Madge agreed [I can almost hear him]
Despite the concerns of some councillors, members voted to approve the constitution."

Job done. And no mention in the Minutes either.

Strictly no comment?

There will have been much excitement in County Hall last Thursday as plans for a new hotel by the Ffos Las racecourse were passed. The proposal is brainchild of ex-footballer and Strictly Come Dancing star Robbie Savage, I have no opinions either way on the development but I was curious to see on the Committee report that the;

Local Member - County Councillor M Gravell has not commented to date

This is not strictly true of course. Her enthusiastic comments were reported by the Western Mail  last February when the application first went in;

Meryl Gravell, Carmarthenshire Council leader, said the “wonderfully charismatic” Savage has kept in touch with her to talk about his plans.
“It is so encouraging to hear that his group has so much faith in the county after seeing all the tremendous regeneration that has and is being achieved throughout Carmarthenshire, that they wanted to exploit potential investment opportunities.”

She is not, fortunately, on the planning committee and perhaps she was wearing her Leader's hat (now passed to Kev), and I suppose we don't know exactly what 'plans' he was discussing with Meryl during their mysterious calls...but who cares! It's a celebrity! And of course the thorny (but sometimes very 'flexible') issue of it being an 'open countryside' location ie outside the development limits of Trimsaran were artfully smoothed over by reference to the 'Ffos Las regeneration site'
Any way, good luck to Mr Savage but perhaps someone should tell him that Meryl will be expecting to be guest of honour at the grand opening and will definitely be expecting the first dance.....

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

A chat with the Wales Audit Office

I ventured out into the monsoon this morning to have a meeting with the Wales Audit Office. For those who have been following things, the WAO preferred to discuss the matter in person prior to writing a reply. The matter is of course, the use of your money (Carmarthenshire taxpayers) to fund the Chief Executive's counterclaim for libel. So armed with some general questions, and acting strictly on behalf of the taxpayer,  I headed down the M4 to a bleak looking business park/Industrial estate on the outskirts of Swansea. When I eventually found the correct building (not one sign saying 'Wales Audit Office' anywhere, unless they'd been carefully removed earlier in the morning..) I was greeted by two pleasant gentlemen who explained that the offices in Carmarthen and Swansea centre were now closed and the WAO had saved 'tens of thousands' by relocating to this windswept corner. Well, that was something I suppose.

As the WAO have tried to make clear, their role appears to be one of monitoring a particular road taken by the council, but they do not make a judgement on whether they should have taken that road in the first place. They said that they had enjoyed my analogy about the 'rocking horse s**t', which was nice. The WAO rely almost entirely on the internal auditors employed by the council to present them with the figures to check, and they meet every month with council officers to monitor the various strange roads they have taken. They will disagree with me on that I'm sure but the other thing I pointed out was the issue of public perception. No one expects them to make a value judgements down to the last paperclip but there was a general expectation that the WAO was an independent body who would hold council spending to account. We know the council has a massive budget to spend but as Caebrwyn's granny always said, look after the pennies..... Although they were adamant that the body was independent, they were, I informed them, not quite the watchdog that people assumed. There were, they said, legal frameworks and remits to be followed which rather brought us back to the rocking horses again.

I asked their view on how the council had used the Local Government Act to justify the funding of the counterclaim, given that it allows a council to do anything 'conducive to it's functions', this means that I was somehow preventing the council from exercising it's 'functions' eg emptying bins, allocating council houses, cutting the verges etc. The gentlemen didn't appear to be entirely certain about this and didn't take a view. I was also wondering what the 'exceptional circumstances' were that the council used to justify the funding - oddly it had nothing to do with the details of the case but just that the council were funding a claim against one person, in other words, if the council were suing six or seven at a time then the WAO would have something to say about it. There we are then.

They had, they said, seen all the 'core documents' of the case and were monitoring the costs, I am not sure when they were last 'updated' with the costs but I'm guessing it was sometime ago. They said they'd follow that up. I asked general questions about value for taxpayers money but of course, they didn't want to be judgemental on either side so this thorny question remained unanswered. Perhaps eventually the taxpayer will be the judge of that. I was interested to learn however that the council are not using an insurance policy to  fund the defence. As I understood it, they have some form of self-insurance with a £1m excess. A bit like your excess on the car windscreen policy, but bigger.

I also asked hypothetically, whether given the potential cost, they would consider stepping in at some point, rather like the district auditor did in the Bedford case (another string to the council's bow of justification), yes, they said, they would consider it but...erm...that was along way off yet....

Another point which arose was Council Tax. The bill for that is in Mr Caebrwyn's name and he rather wanted to know whether he was contributing towards a claim to sue his wife. Yes, they said, in principle, he was. It may be a very small amount in the grand scheme of things (at the moment), but yes, he was right. I promised to pass on their comments to a curious Mr C.

We moved swiftly on to some speculative questions. One of which was whether, in the event of the Chief Executive being awarded damages, they would go to him personally, yes, they said, they would. He would then, apparently, donate the money to the council rather like a gift. The gentlemen told me that some people even bequeathed money to local authorities in their will, Caebrwyn couldn't quite understand such devotion and assured them that Carmarthenshire County Council was definitely not going to benefit from all her worldly goods...well maybe they could have her lucky rabbit's foot as it hadn't brought much luck and was starting to smell.

As the time came to leave, the forthcoming 'Inspection of Public Accounts' was mentioned and I reassured the gentlemen that I, and others would be sifting through the invoices down at County Hall very soon and this could quite possibly result in another visit to the auditors. I detected a couple of slightly forced smiles at the prospect but they remained very professional and polite and left the swearing until I was well out of earshot. Anyway, they were very nice and Caebrwyn rather wishes she was a little younger and hoped that our paths will soon cross again, perhaps in the romantic glow of the gaslamps in the dusty catacombs of Carmarthenshire's Department of Finance....

Delyth Jenkins - A Gap in the System

Regular readers will remember Delyth Jenkins, the whistle blower who, after a lengthy battle with Carmarthenshire Council, exposed abuse in a council run day centre for vulnerable adults in Carmarthen. The damning ombudsman reports which followed, in 2009, were the subject of a recent article in Private Eye and the S4C programme, Taro 9. The ombudsman had said that if her initial allegations had been dealt with properly, then subsequent abuse might not have happened. Not only Carmarthenshire Council (no surprise there) but also the Welsh government have consistently declined to comment.

Yesterday's Western Mail continues with the story as Delyth has identified a glaring gap in the inspection system. The 'remit' of the Care and Social Services Inspectorate (CSSIW) currently covers childrens' day centres and adult residential homes but, for some reason, day centres for vulnerable adults, many of whom cannot communicate, are excluded. It is clearly, as a matter of common sense, a glaring omission in a system where independent inspections could possibly identify problems at an early stage. Whether or not the CSSIW is effective is another matter and subject to some debate but it's all there is and Delyth, who is determined to see this loophole closed, has appealed to the Welsh Government to widen their remit. One would have thought that this would be a straightforward and urgent matter but instead we have a depressingly familiar paragraph of waffle from a government spokesperson. Here's the first paragraph; "The need for informed planning, procurement and review of all social care services was set out in comprehensive statutory guidance on commissioning issued to all Welsh local Authorities in Wales in August 2010....." it goes on (and on) to say that a White Paper, available for consultation will be issued by the summer of 2013....

So meanwhile, in the real world, day centres for vulnerable adults such as 'Sally' continue to avoid independent scrutiny and it is left to the occassional brave whistleblower such as Delyth to wade through the tortuous network of a complaints system and battle against local authorities whose primary guidance would seem to be the avoidance of bad publicity.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

MP Calls Carmarthenshire Council a 'Dictatorship'

As I have reported countless times on this blog the County Council has a real problem dealing with negative stories in the local press. I'm sure the same goes for the national press too but they're the bigger boys and will not succumb so easily to threats. I raised this issue only the other day (The question of editorial control againToday's Western Mail reports on the latest attempt at 'blackmail' against one of our smaller local papers, the South Wales Guardian. One of the Assistant Chief Executives was clearly tasked with 'glossing over' the leak and coming up with an explanation to minimise the dire message this story illustrates. He has failed. Threats to withdraw advertising from the Carmarthen Journal over the publication of negative stories were widely reported a couple of years ago and slammed by the AM and MP - clearly things are no better. It is curious that reputation management is such a high priority with County Hall that it is prepared, on a regular basis, via financial threats, to control the editorial output of our local papers. Shameful.
Here's the article;

"A county council has been written to by an Assembly member and an MP after evidence emerged that it was appearing to withdraw advertising from a local paper whose coverage of a story it did not like.
Earlier this month Carmarthenshire County Council pulled an advert from the South Wales Guardian - owned by the Newquest Group - in response to a story in which traders expressed concern about possible delays to a regeneration scheme for Ammanford's town centre.
The council's press manager emailed a member of the authority's marketing department stating; Due to the continuing negative publicity by the Guardian and the concerns expressed by all those present at the Ammanford town centre steering group held this week, I do not think we should be placing adverts with them until this issue is resolved, as the group felt the Guardian was not supportive of the town centre which they should be in a local paper.
In a joint letter to council leader, Kevin Madge, MP Jonathan Edwards and AM, Rhodri Glyn Thomas said;

"You will no doubt be aware that a number of members of Ammanford Town Council are themselves traders in this town. As democratically elected members of that town council they have every right to state their opinions and make representations on behalf of their electors. The South Wales Guardian, along with other newspaper publications, has the legitimate right to report the business of that and any other council. The decision by your county council to remove advertising completely undermines the notion of free press - a founding element of any democracy.
We can arrive at no other conclusion than to consider the council's bully boy tactics as an outrageous form of blackmail more benefitting the sort of actions seen in dictatorships"

The council's Assistant Chief Executive, Chris Burns responded "The intention was to meet with the editor next week to discuss concerns that had been raised in the steering group regarding a front page story in the Guardian. In the meantime one single advert was put on hold. We spend quite a lot with the Guardian and there's no intention to stop this advertising. As I understand it the trader's concerns were that the story appeared to suggest that the town was likely to be 'closed for Christmas'. The article concerned was not, I must say, particularly critical of the county council and I cannot see any reason why this would have led to us removing advertising completely"

Cneifwr has blogged on the issue; Called in for a chat - Carmarthenshire and press freedom 

Thursday, 12 July 2012

£20,000 pay rise for Chief Executive - with a clarification

With the forthcoming public inspection of accounts in mind I had a look at the latest 'pre-audit' balance sheet on the council website. I came to something of a standstill at page 78 where it appears that the Chief Executive has had a £20,000 pay rise. That's a very generous 12.1% increase. Senior officers have been under a well publicised pay freeze for the past couple of years but according to this, which has been rather less publicised, it's well and truly thawed out.
So much for 'tightening belts' then.
I would imagine that there are many employees of the council who will be interested to learn of this.

Update 15th July;
I have now been informed that this £20,000 is for Returning officer fees, for 2011/12. This will have included the Welsh Assembly ( plus Alternative Vote referendum) elections held in May 2011. The RO fees for the local elections held in May 2012 and the Police Commissioner elections later this year will appear on 2012/13 Statement of Accounts senior salary.
As far as I can make out, the maximum personal fees for Returning Officer services for the Assembly and AV Referendum in May last year was £4,730 (see here) I assume the figure of £20,000 classed within 'Salary' includes additional unspecified expenses and covers fees for more than one constituency.
If this is the case, I am of course happy to clarify the situation.
Should the returning officer retire during an election year, the fees would also be included towards the final salary pension.

Update 2013 - Plaid Cymru politicians have made further investigations

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The question of editorial control...again

An interesting letter (not by me) has appeared in this week's Carmarthen Journal, I have reprinted it below. It deals with the cancellation of the July meeting of full council and the current level of inactivity on a democratic level at County Hall.
The letter suggests, with tongue firmly in cheek, that the electorate deserve a refund.

However, this blog has had sight of the full version as sent to the newspaper and curiously, two sentences have been carefully edited out. I have included them below, highlighted in bold. Now of course the newspaper retains the right to edit letters, for whatever reasons and it also, usually, gives a right of reply. Although, as Cneifiwr pointed out a couple of months ago, it is sometimes interesting to see who does have the last word. Maybe the job title referred to must only be shown in a positive light? Who knows. I will leave you draw your own conclusions, but yet again it undoubtably raises the troubling question of where exactly editorial control of the independent press lies in Carmarthenshire. Chilling.

As I said, here's the complete version; 

"Carmarthenshire County Council has announced that it is cancelling its July meeting of councillors because there is insufficient business for them to transact, and it is unlikely that the full council will meet again until September. The previous administration wound down most of its operations in March ahead of the May elections, and most of the committees wil not meet until the autumn. The same lack of business is reflected in the activity of the council's Executive Board.

Despite this, members of the Executive Board and the chairman of the various committees are drawing generous special responsibility allowances. The Leader of the Council, Kevin Madge, receives an allowance of £47,500, while the two deputy leaders get £31,120 each. Other members of the Executive Board, which was recently expanded because of "pressure of work" are paid £28,780, while the various committee chairs each get £21,910. [The Chief Executive earns a basic salary of £170,000]. On top of this, there are various other allowances and perks.
In 2011 councillors' allowances cost Carmarthenshire just under £1.4m, compared with a projected £540,000 for the neighbouring authority in Ceredigion this year.

Despite what amounts to a six month break in activity, with very few committee meetings and very low levels of activity in general, members of the Executive Board and the chairs of the committees are still receiving their full allowances. The bill for May, when almost nothing happened while negotiations to form a new administration dragged on, was £24,500. And some of the authority's senior officers will also have been enjoying an appreciably lighter workload.
So how about a decision to return six months of special responsibility allowances? [And perhaps the Chief Executive will agree to forego his salary for a few months as well in recognition of the reduced workload and] as a gesture to all those families, pensioners and others struggling to make ends meet. 
The money saved could be used to reverse some of the cuts the council is proposing to make, including the 50% reduction in funding for the Mentrau Iaith, which will see their grant cut by £50,000 over the next three years."

The truncated version also appears online; http://www.thisissouthwales.co.uk/Pay-allowances/story-16514922-detail/story.html

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Volunteers needed - Council accounts inspection time!

Just had an email from the Department of Money at the Council letting me know that the period for the public inspection of the accounts is from the 16th July to the 10th August this year - as this only usually coincides with the appearance of Halley's Comet, I suggest those of you with an interest book your slot now! As usual there is precious little notice, nothing on the website yet of course, and naturally nothing under 'Public Notices'. I also wonder if they've recently bought a job lot of black ink for the occasion. We'll see.

Caebrwyn is compiling her 'application to the Director of Resources' as we speak......

Here's the Notice to be published;

NOTICE IS HEREBY GIVEN that pursuant to Section 30 and 31 of the Public Audit (Wales) Act 2004 and the Accounts and Audit Regulations 2005 that:

(1) From 16th July 2012 to the 10th August 2012 inclusive between the hours of 9.15 a.m. and 4 p.m. (Monday to Friday) any person interested on application to the Director of Resources, Carmarthenshire County Council, County Hall, Carmarthen, SA31 1JP may inspect, and make copies of the accounts of the above named Council for the year ended 31st March 2012 and all books, deeds, contracts, bills, vouchers and receipts relating thereto.

(2) On or after the 13th August 2012 until the conclusion of the Audit, the Appointed Auditor, Wales Audit Office, County Hall, Carmarthen, SA31 1JP at the request of any local government elector for the area to which the accounts relate, will give the elector or his or her representative an opportunity to question him about the accounts, and any such elector or his or her representative may attend before the Auditor to make objections:

(a) as to any matter in respect of which the auditor could take action under section 32 of the Act or
(b) as to any other matter in respect of which the Auditor could make a report in the public interest under section 22 of the Act.

(3) No objection may be made unless the Auditor has previously received written notice of the objection and the grounds on which it is to be made, and that a copy of such notice is sent to the body whose accounts are the subject of the audit.

Dated 13th June 2012
County Hall, Carmarthen, SA31 1JP Tel (01267) 224886

Monday, 9 July 2012

Should Carmarthenshire be Twinned with Barnet?

Hopefully some of you occasionally click the blog links on the right hand side of this page. If you haven't already, I suggest you have a look at the Barnet bloggers, notably Mrs Angry's and Mr Mustard's. They, along with others in the London borough set something of an example to the rest of us about the role of citizens bringing the local authority to account. The similarities with Carmarthenshire Council have often been noted and it has been suggested that a twinning arrangement could be set up whereby senior officers and members could exchange positions for a week or two to bring each other up to date with the latest methods of withholding information and avoiding scrutiny by members of the public.

Of course Barnet has a slight difficulty in that it is beholden to publish spending details over £500 and, under the English Public Audit Act, has to provide an inspection period every year for the electorate to view all the accounts. Carmarthenshire council, of course, doesn't have to worry about any of that nonsense, no spending details are published and the last inspection period was a couple of years ago - maybe there will be one this year, I don't know. (I have emailed the Council to ask, I'm eagerly awaiting their reply and a personal invitation to inspect). Not that Barnet is any more welcoming to armchair auditors than our friends down the road and their recent trip to study the accounts (remember this includes receipts, invoices etc) was reminiscent of a trip to view the register of member's interests undertaken by 'Mrs T' last year.(see The Sacred Parchments)

Also reminiscent is the way the Barnet bloggers were treated, rather like suspected terrorists, being marched around the building and escorted to the loo and back as well as being faced with material which was so redacted it was unreadable. A few week's ago a lady was ordered to leave a Barnet council meeting for filming the proceedings by an overly secretive Chair who had momentarily forgotten that such basic democratic rights were now welcome in the Chamber (credit for this move also goes to the bloggers).
All sounds very familiar doesn't it? Of course we have a few added extras here such as the sudden necessity for visitors to the public gallery to provide their names and addresses which serves no other purpose than to enable Carmarthenshire Council officers to monitor who's observing proceedings and of course the escorted march to the gallery.
Here's an email from the Head of Legal to one of the Assistant Chief Execs dated 9th June 2011 (the day after the #daftarrest);

"I'd appreciate a chat about the steps which will need to be taken to ensure that Mrs Thompson [that's me, middle aged lady with phone] is not allowed to gain access past the card entry point leading up to the Council gallery. I've discussed with Colin [Democratice Services Manager] and hopefully this is something which reception staff, working with Colin and possibly caretaking staff can manage between them. I've discussed these measures with the Police (they came to see me yesterday afternoon) who can assist in case of difficulty. We will also need to close the side door to County Hall nearest the castle because it gives direct access to the gallery. Mark suggests we limit that to Council and Planning committee days"

Of course by the following meeting, the officer-only 'operational decisions' bits of paper to sign etc were all neatly in place.

When it comes to releasing information, Carmarthenshire is particularly reluctant to divulge it's secrets, my recent request for correspondence between the Council and the Towy Community Church was refused because it would 'exceed the cost limit' - I've asked again, and had to narrow my request due to the apparent enormous volume of material. I could have argued that £1.4m of taxpayers money to build an evangelical bowling alley exceeded the cost limit as well, but I didn't bother. Other requests which have 'exceeded the cost limit' have included release of spending details. I don't think Carmarthenshire council quite 'get's' the whole concept of public accessibility to information.

The issue of the cost of answering Freedom of Information requests is something of a hot topic at the moment and I read an interesting tale from Nottingham Council over the weekend where a couple of council leaders were screeching about the enormous cost (Nottingham Council is also the only council in England not to publish it's spending details), alarming figures of £500k and £600k were bandied about which, (it goes without saying) prompted a Freedom of Info request. The actual cost, it transpired, was around £64,000 a year. The Nottingham response is interesting as it appears that the same amount of time is spent on Case Administration as is spent on Reputation Impact Assessment, the latter always being the overriding priority here in Carmarthenshire. I think I may have to ask our own County Hall for their FoI figures and costs but a refusal is always possible on the grounds of national security...or something, it would be interesting to compare the figures with the budget for the Council's over productive Department of Spin.
Read the Nottigham tale (with a link to the FoI response) here; http://davidhiggerson.wordpress.com/2012/07/08/using-foi-to-challenge-claims-about-the-cost-of-foi/

Update 10th July
Regarding Carmarthenshire Council's figures for FoI and PR, I have now asked (through FoI); http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/foi_and_pr_costs

Monday, 2 July 2012

A news round up...and the value of rocking horse s**t

.....Another recent ombudsman's report found it's way to Caebrwyn last week. The ombudsman found against the council following a complaint about the administration of a particular grant;  this was not a public interest report so I'll not go into details. To summarise, the grant application process was found to be misleading - an attempt by the ombudsman and the complainant to bring an early resolution by resubmitting the grant application was refused by the council. The ombudsman stated that the council were 'entrenched and unhelpful', ordered an apology, a review and fined them £750..... (see Ombudsman slams Carmarthenshire's complaint handling)

......A public meeting was held on Saturday in Llandovery concerning a proposed 76 home development. Local residents had set up the event to make people aware of what was happening, I went along as an observer. Local Member Cllr Ivor Jackson, ex-Chair of the Council and now back yet again on the Planning Committee was there and was surprisingly outspoken given his previous silence over the closure of the town's secondary school. In fact, a little too outspoken, and much to the amazement and horror of many of those present, including many objectors, blithely declared that the application, still at the consultation stage, would 'go through without a problem'. Fortunately a town councillor who clearly had greater knowledge of planning matters than the hapless Ivor was on hand to calm things down and suggested that what he might of meant was the presumption in favour of residential development through the UDP...a relieved Ivor happily agreed, I'm not sure the 'floor' were entirely convinced though...

......On the subject of Cllr Jackson, I wonder if he read this article in the South Wales Guardian  "Llandovery town councillors are stepping up their campaign to improve safety at a notorious junction in the town. They want the Trunk Road Agency to look into the possibility of extending double yellow lines along High Street, closer to the Myddfai junction. PC Howie Davies told members he had received numerous complaints about parked cars from lorry drivers travelling through the town...Cllr Thomas reported there had been “a near miss” at the location that day. “That junction’s completely blind because cars are parked so close to it,” she said.

Cllr Jackson on the Myddfai junction (from earlier post May 3rd)


....Oh nearly forgot this little incident at the last full council meeting. Due to the continuing mysterious smell of boiled cabbage, intensified by the oppressive heat generated in the Chamber, Cllr Caiach employed the use of a small electronic fan. This, as you will understand, attracted the immediate attention of the Chair who ordered the rebellious councillor to 'turn off that recording device'. Cllr Caiach explained what the 'recording device' was and a ripple of amusement followed as one councillor declared that he was relieved that 'at least one of them had a fan....'

Cneifiwr reports today on the subject of councillors' allowances; Can we have a refund Kev?