By the time I had managed to get into today's meeting of the full council (after reading and signing statements, signing in, waiting for my escort, etc.), I had missed the first 15 minutes or so of the meeting, including the bit where councillors were asked to approve last month's porky pie minutes. The seven or eight lost souls in the gallery were all leaning over the edge of the balcony when I came in, either because something interesting had just happened below or because they were contemplating collective suicide.
Anyway, I arrived just in time for a very long statement read by one of the senior officers in a monotonous Ulster drone. The subject was social services, and the councillors were being asked to consider his annual report. On and on he went, and a couple of people left the gallery, presumably because they had decided not to end it all. Chief executive Mark James (why does he remind me of "Something of the Night Michael Howard"?) shared a joke with council chair, Ivor Jackson. Both looked pretty pleased with themselves. A victory for them, a defeat for democracy. Tee hee.
The debate then started. There was a reference to respite care. The Ulsterman showed a slight flicker of emotion at this point because the BBC had claimed in a recent report that Carmarthenshire had been cutting respite care. Not true, he said, studiously avoiding going into detail such as the closure of Yr Hafan, a respite care home, or the way in which eligibility for respite has been "developed".
Councillor Kevin Madge (deputy leader of the council and leader of the Labour group) stood up to huff and puff about the achievements of the council under the wise stewardship of Madge and Meryl. Everything had been turned round and was "coming to fruit". During his ramble, Cllr Madge repeated the phrase "to be honest" several times. My old grandmother warned me about people who did that.
Councillor Arthur Davies (People First), one of the more intelligent councillors, pointed out that the collapse of Southern Cross showed that councillors were right to reject Meryl's plans to close down a council-run residential home. The Ulsterman replied that the council had never veered away from a mixed public/private approach to residential care. It's just that the council had wanted to close (sorry, "develop") some of its homes.
A lady with a cut glass English accent put bolshy Councillor Siân Caiach in her place next by pointing out that the questions she was hoping to put to the Social Care Scrutiny Committee were too late, as the meeting had already been held. So there, with hockey sticks.
Questions were also asked about the development (closure) of day clubs for the elderly. Some of these have now been taken over by voluntary organisations, such as the WRVS. An officer helpfully explained that the council's day clubs were supported with public funds, whereas the WRVS were community organisations not supported by public funds, well all right then, supported with public money but at arm's length.
At this point Councillor Gwynne Wooldridge popped up. Cllr Wooldridge is not someone who has obviously spent much time in academic institutions, which is perhaps why he is cabinet member responsible for education. He was very proud that the auditor general had given the council such a clean bill of health, he said, and went on to praise himself and his colleagues for generally making everything better.
Some of the Plaid heavyweights then spoke up. Councillor John Edwards set the tone for the rest of the debate by raising concerns. The report contained some dark warnings for the future, he said. The council was now spending £77 million a year on social care, and this was clearly not enough. He warned again that the council should not become over-reliant on the private sector.
The council leader, Meryl Gravell, summed up. She began by reminding everyone just how important she is, as she had recently met a "very senior civil servant" in Cardiff and been interviewed by someone else. Having got that off her ample chest, she said that the "next administration" (hint, hint, there's an election next year) would face some very difficult choices. There was no more money, but demands on the services were growing. She did not seem too worried though. Perhaps she is planning on spending more time in the rose garden after the election.
Next up came the minutes of the two most recent meetings of the Executive Board. The main concerns raised here, again by Plaid members and Cllr Arthur Davies, were alcohol abuse and the fact that licences to sell alcohol are being showered around like confetti. In just one ward in Carmarthen 105 licences had been granted. Lots of tut-tutting.
Up to this point, very little Welsh had been heard in the chamber, but Cllr Peter Hughes Griffiths and a couple of others now spoke eloquently and intelligently. A few people fiddled with their headphones. Mark James appears not to need them; or he just doesn't bother listening.
Councillor Pam Palmer (the one who complained about filming last time) sat primly in her twin set and pearls. She fiddled with her headphones, started listening to what the Plaid members were saying, then took them off. She was possibly worrying about the effect of the headset on her perm. Then she spoke. Cllr Palmer is so posh that she probably owns what we locals call a "ty ha", or holiday home, in the Surrey stockbroker belt. Quite how she puts up with all the rain and the uncouth local Welshies is a mystery. What she said was somehow lost on me.
At that point Cllr Madge stood up and started saying "to be honest" and I had to make a quick decision.
Faced with the choice between ending it all in a desperate leap from the balcony or trying to escape, I chose freedom. Only to get trapped in the stairwell, where the wardens picked me up.