Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Gwelliant anhygoel

Diolch i'r Cynghorydd Arfon Jones am wneud ceisiadau o dan Ddeddf Rhyddid Gwybodaeth i bob un o'r 22 Awdurdod Lleol yng Nghymru i ofyn dau gwestiwn syml:
  • Faint o weithwyr mae'r Cyngor yn eu cyflogi ar hyn o bryd? 
  • Faint o’r gweithwyr yna sydd mewn swyddi sydd wedi eu dynodi fel fod y Gymraeg yn angenrheidiol?  
Gallwch chi ddarllen yr atebion ar flog Plaid Wrecsam (yma). Er syndod i neb yn Sir Gâr (9,004 aelod o staff, gyda llaw), doedd y wybodaeth ddim ar gael, a chafodd y cais ei wrthod.

Yn ôl Pennaeth Gweinyddiaeth a'r Gyfraith y Cyngor (sydd hefyd yn enwog fel y Swyddog Monitro), mae'r awdurdod wedi bod wrthi'n paratoi awdit manwl o sgiliau iaith ei staff. Dyma'r canlyniadau:


Nifer o weithwyr sydd wedi cwblhau’r arolwg
Gweithwyr â sgiliau siarad Cymraeg
Gweithwyr â sgiliau ysgrifennu Cymraeg
Y Prif Weithredwr
222 (79%)
185 (65.8%)
Addysg a Gwasanaethau Plant
473 (77%)
351 (57.2%)
Adfywio a Hamdden
238 (68.9%)
175 (50.4%)
253 (72%)
185 (52.7%)
Iechyd, Gofal Cymdeithasol a Thai
367 (66.4%)
261 (47.2%)
Gwasanaethau Technegol
239 (75.4%)
184 (58%)
29 (64.4%)
22 (48.9%)
1821 (72.7%)
1363 (54.4%)

Dyma ffigyrau sy'n hynod o bositif o'u cymharu â'r sefyllfa yn 2009-10. Yn ei adroddiad blynyddol i'r hen Fwrdd yr Iaith, dyma oedd ffigyrau swyddogol y Cyngor dair blynedd yn ôl:

Nifer a % y staff sy’n gweithio i’r Cyngor sy’n gallu siarad Cymraeg (ac eithrio athrawon a staff ysgolion):

Prif Weithredwr                                  178 (314)    57%

Adnoddau                                           226 (425)    53%

Adfywio a Hamdden                           193 (470)     41%

Gofal Cymdeithasol a Thai                   822 (1616)   51%

Addysg a Gwasanaethau Plant             719 (3647)  20%

Gwasanaethau Technegol                     280 (1009)  28%

Awdurdod cyfan                                2418 (9213)  26%

Wrth gwrs, mae'r rhan fwyaf o staff heb gwblhau'r arolwg eleni, ond o ystyried i'r nifer o gwynion i Adran Addysg y Cyngor ddangos gostyngiad o 563% y llynedd, mae pob dim yn bosib yn Sir Gâr.

Gelli Aur - a Carmarthenshire tale

Carmarthenshire County Council runs what it likes to call an "exciting" investment strategy, although as we lurch from one disaster to the next with ever more inventive off-balance sheet deals and slight-of-hand accountancy magic (see Caebrwyn's Eastgate and the Developers for the latest fairground attraction), "terrifying" is probably the word most council tax payers would apply to this out of control ride.

Cneifiwr was recently reminded of the fate of another of Carmarthenshire's famous herd of white elephants, the Gelli Aur estate, now finally retired and limping towards what looks like the elephants' graveyard.
Gelli Aur in happier times

Gelli Aur (which translates into English as "golden grove") is close to Llandeilo, and was originally the home of the Vaughan family who claimed descent from the princes of Powys. The estate was acquired by the Cawdor family at the beginning of the 19th century, and they built the present house in the 1830s. The National Trust apparently considers it to be one of the ten most important historic houses in Wales, and it is Grade II Listed.

The Cawdors left in the 1930s, and during the Second World War the house was used by American airmen. Later the County Council acquired a lease on the property, and part of it has been used by Coleg Sir Gâr, while the surrounding park was open to the public, complete with tearooms.

Four Green Bottles - the Techniums

In 2001 the now-defunct Welsh Development Agency decided to invest in a dramatic expansion of the Technium business incubator scheme which was pioneered by Swansea University. At least five new centres were to be built in different parts of Wales initially, and a couple of years later the programme was expanded again with £150 million of new funding.

Things began to move quickly. On 3 September 2001 the county council's Ratification Committee (chair Meryl Gravell) met to discuss a range of matters. The Technium centres were briefly mentioned, and it seemed that Carmarthenshire would be getting four of the five, although a decision was still pending on Aqua Technium.

Barely two weeks later, on 18th September 2001, members of the county council's Regeneration Board (membership then included Cllr Meryl Gravell, currently Executive Board Member responsible for, erm, Regeneration) met in closed session to discuss a number of different plans and projects. There was great excitement because the WDA had now apparently said that Carmarthenshire would get the four Technium centres, although it had decided to locate Auto Technium at Dafen (aka Llanelli Gate) rather than at Pembrey as originally planned.

There was some disappointment over this, as it had been argued that proximity to the Pembrey racing circuit was ideal for a business incubator specialising in engine components. Councillors were also worried that plans for a horse racing track at Pembrey were looking dicey. This gleam in Meryl's eye later turned out to be Ffos Las, conveniently closer to Trimsaran. In addition to Auto Technium, the county was to get a Media Technium (location undecided), a Bio Technium (National Botanic Gardens) and an Aqua Technium at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Centre in Llanelli.

£1.6 million of council money was allocated to the Aqua Technium. Whatever happened to this centre is unclear, although it seems that Swansea University may have poached it back. In Carmarthenshire it received a quiet burial at the Wildfowl Centre, possibly along with some other dead ducks.

Roll forward three months, and in late December 2001 Cllr Pam Palmer, then as now a member of the county council's Executive Board, and Rob Sully (now Director of Education) were busy approving an exciting business development plan for the county. The plan included taking "full advantage" of the council's unique position in the Technium scheme by "contributing significantly to the development of Auto-Technium at Llanelli Gate and supporting the development of Media Technium at Gelli Aur and Bio Technium at the National Botanic Garden of Wales".

As this is a trip down memory lane, we should also mention the arrival of another member of the Dream Team at this exciting point in our county's history, as it was at this time that Mark James became Chief Executive, fresh from his triumph with what is now known as the Princess Royal Arena in Boston, Lincolnshire. This grandiose sports arena unfortunately attracted a very critical report from the Audit Commission in 2007. Initially it was said that it would not cost the tax payers of Boston a penny; they are still paying.

Subsequently the Auto Technium limped along, quietly dropping the Auto from its name. The Welsh Government, which had sent the WDA off to the knacker's yard by this time, struck a hush-hush deal with the County Council last year. The council rebranded it "The Beacon" and has several times misleadingly claimed that under its expert guidance the centre's fortunes have been transformed and that it is full to capacity.

What Auto Technium/the Beacon has so far cost the council tax payer is not known, but we can be sure that it won't have come cheap.

The Bio Technium at Llanarthne appears to have had an even less illustrious history. In January 2005, the Western Mail reported that it was going nowhere, although it said that a £2.5 million centre had been built to house it and had been empty for three years. The WDA's contribution to that was £768,000.

Swansea University published a paper in 2002 which put the cost of the Bio Technium at £4.7 million.

At some point after 2005 the Bio Technium also had a quiet funeral, with the Welsh Assembly saying in 2010 that it had been taken over by a bio technology company.

How much the county council chipped in is not known, although the National Botanic Garden is listed as one of the investors, and Carmarthenshire is one of the garden's financial backers.

Which leaves just Media Technium, which was supposed to bring new life to Gelli Aur.

This scheme was more ambitious than most of its sickly cousins, and had a price tag of £9.7 million, of which £5.2 million was to have been funded from public money, according to the Western Mail. A key partner in the venture was businessman Jeffrey Paul Thomas, acting through his companies Gelli Aur Ltd and Hatham Park plc.

There was a great deal of excitement about this in 2002, and one of the companies said to be interested in taking up residence was Telesgop, the Welsh television production company. Telesgop, which had probably done its own due diligence and looked at records from Companies House, quickly dropped out.

It is understood that money began to flow from the WDA and the county council to the tune of up to £1 million, but time dragged on, and nothing much happened. Work apparently began on the house, but then stopped when it was discovered that there was no planning permission.

Then in June 2003 the WDA announced that Mr Thomas would be pulling out because of the "prevailing uncertainties in the international climate", conditions which most economists would probably now describe as a boom.

Exit Mr Thomas with the WDA saying that it would be pursuing him for £434,000. The WDA remained confident that the project would still go ahead, however. Around £250,000 of other grant money apparently also went missing. If any of this was ever recovered, history does not relate.

Companies House currently has records of 77 directorships held by Mr Thomas, of which 17 are active. 60 other companies have been dissolved.

As we were reminded recently by the Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire, the council does not normally carry out background checks on organisations it helps fund, leaving that to the Welsh Government and other central public bodies.

The collapse of the Bio and Media projects cost the taxpayer millions of pounds without creating a single job, and it is questionable whether the surviving venture at Dafen has ever launched a new company either. A great deal of the centre is currently occupied by public sector agencies, and it is reasonable to ask whether any of the companies now in residence would have done equally well without the scheme.

Anyone interested in finding out more about the Technium fiasco and why two of the centres were nicknamed Emptium and Desertium by officials, should read this reflective piece from the Western Mail.

A Golden Future

Meanwhile, the house at Gelli Aur stood empty after the departure in 2003 of the agricultural college, with the county council still in possession of its lease on both the house and the estate. 

In early 2005 the estate was bought by a company called Harmoni Developments, which said it had plans to turn the house into a luxury hotel (see Western Mail article here). The plans were ambitious, and Harmoni said it was actively engaged in other development schemes in Merthyr Tydfil.

By the end of the same year, Harmoni Developments was out of business.

Another property developer from Narberth bought the house in January 2007, planning to turn it into flats. In 2009 it was sold again to another developer with similar plans.

At some point while all this was going on, the lead was stripped from the roof, and the fabric of the house went into sharp decline.

Next up a charity appeared on the scene hoping to buy the house and turn it into a convalescence home for wounded soldiers. That scheme collapsed as well, and in October 2011 the BBC was reporting that the property had been acquired by an outfit calling itself the Golden Grove Trust. The Trust said it planned to turn the house into an art gallery and the grounds into a sculpture park.

According to the BBC, "Carmarthenshire council holds a lease on the mansion and has confirmed the sale, with the council maintaining the estate for the next 18 months".

The council confirmed this in a press release in March 2012. "Golden New Future for Country Park", it announced, assuring the public that most of the grounds would remain open to the public.

Golden Grove Trust was registered as a charity in August 2011, and its records state that it was set up with the express purpose of saving the house and turning it into an art gallery, etc.

The trustees are listed as Mr William Powell Wilkins CBE, Mr Richard Christo Salmon (or Richard Christopher Salmon) and Lady Jane Frances Birt.

Mr Wilkins is an artist, while Mr Salmon has been involved with various art and antiques dealerships and companies.

As a new charity, Golden Grove does not have a history of published accounts, but one of its trustees, Mr William Wilkins is also trustee of a charity called Artes Mundi Prize Ltd, which aims to present a "landmark programme of international, contemporary visual art that will enrich the cultural and educational life of Wales and its people".

The contact person for the Golden Grove Trust is Mr Salmon, residing at a smart address in London.

There is nothing to suggest that the latest venture is anything other than a bona fide attempt to bring art to the people of Wales, but the project will be a huge and very expensive undertaking given the vandalism and neglect that has gone on while the County Council has been responsible as leaseholder for the house and estate. Local people and those familiar with the recent history of the estate could be forgiven for being sceptical.

The three backers are all in their 60s or 70s. Two of the three (Mr Salmon and Lady Jane Birt), appear to live in some of the most upmarket parts of London, while Mr Wilkins is an established artist who was born in England but is known for his Welsh landscapes.

One oddity is that given their artistic backgrounds you might have thought the trustees would have been aware of cultural sensitivities in this Welsh-speaking part of Wales and used the actual Welsh name of the house, Gelli Aur, rather than an Engish translation of the name when setting up their project.

It is also appropriate to ask how the project, which will almost certainly require several millions of pounds, will be funded.

[Update - thanks to Anon. for putting another piece of the jigsaw into place. William Wilkins was the brains behind the National Botanic Gardens at Llanarthne (see article here), another "won't cost you a penny" project. He was also heavily involved in the successful restoration of Aberglasney gardens.]

Meanwhile, with the county council still "maintaining" the park and the house continuing its slide to ruin, large areas of the park, including the deer park trail and arboretum, were closed by the new owners in March 2012. The cafe, which is privately operated, will be closed in the next few days.

The closures were necessary, apparently, on the grounds of health and safety, security and insurance considerations. No timescale has been given by the Trust for letting the public back in.

And so ends this sad and sorry tale of incompetence, greed and good intentions gone bad. Although the Welsh Development Agency bears the primary responsibility for the failure of the Technium schemes, the County Council was by no means an innocent bystander. One of the remarkable things about this is how many of the key players in this drama are still in place as senior officers of the council or members of the governing Executive Board. Millions of pounds of taxpayers' money have been wasted, without a single job created, and there are grounds for suspecting that there may have been serious fraud involved at some points along the way.

It is also surely extraordinary that as leaseholder with responsibility for management of the estate for so long, the County Council has stood by as the house was vandalised and allowed it and parts of the park to fall into neglect.

The BBC's current affairs programme Taro 9 carried out an investigation into the Media Technium farce some years ago (background article here in Welsh). Perhaps it is time for them to take another look.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Jargon and abuse

Older readers may remember the philosopher Bertrand Russell, one of the great thinkers and mathematicians of the twentieth century. Russell was born into a life of aristocratic privilege and power politics in the nineteenth century, spending part of his childhood in 10 Downing Street. In old age he was an active member of CND, even getting himself arrested.

Russell was a prolific writer, and firmly believed that no matter how complex the subject matter, it could be expressed in simple and clear language. Anyone interested in the development of political thought should read his "A History of Western Philosophy and Its Connection with Political and Social Circumstances from the Earliest Times to the Present Day".

Language mattered to Russell, and it should matter to us. Garbled and incoherent communication nearly always betrays confused thinking. Jargon and technical terms are different, and there are fields in which specialist technical terms are essential, but government and public policy are not one of them.

Caebrwyn has written about yesterday's edition of Eye on Wales which dealt with the use of jargon in government, and while it is easy to laugh about some of the dafter examples, such as multi-modal parking facilities (car parks), there is good reason to be worried about the growing thicket of jargon which surrounds our government institutions.

As linguists know, it is very common for clubs and groups to develop their own codes of communication. They create a sense of identity to those on the inside, and help keep inquisitive outsiders away. They can also erode empathy (the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes), and the pat phrases and standard formulations can quickly lead to lazy thinking or even lack of thought.

That is how we end up with daft and unrealistic documents such as Carmarthenshire's Annual Report and Improvement Plan written, so the Chief Executive told councillors, not for the public but for the civil servants in Cardiff. These documents give us a glimpse into a world inhabited by people who have lost their grip on reality, where the jargon and formulaic phrases have created a parallel universe completely unlike the one the rest of us inhabit.

When these civil servants and senior council officers drive home, they may spot boarded up shops, roads with massive potholes and deprived neighbourhoods as they whizz past in their expensive cars, but back in the office they live in a world in which targets have been met and exceeded, and everything is getting better.

On the news this morning is a report on a Panorama programme which will be following up the Winterbourne View scandal. The victims of the abuse have been rehoused, often very far from their families, and may it seems have been subjected to further abuse.

The company which was running Winterbourne View was being paid £3,500 per week, per person to care for the people who were so horrifically abused. Some of the staff involved have received relatively mild prison sentences, but those responsible for running the home have got off scot-free and a great deal richer.

There are now calls for the creation of a new offence of corporate negligence.

In the case of Sally, the young woman who was abused in a day care centre run by Carmarthenshire County Council, nobody had to face the ordeal of a court-room appearance, although both Sally and Delyth Jenkins, the whistleblower, were physically abused by a member of the centre's staff. It was also acknowledged at the time of the Ombudsman's investigation that these were not isolated incidents.

None of the officers responsible for running the home were dismissed or even disciplined, it seems, and some have since been promoted.

The Care and Social Services Inspectorate for Wales was not and is not responsible for inspecting the centre because day centres do not come under its remit, but for those of us who witnessed the smartly dressed young woman from the CSSIW presenting her annual report on Carmarthenshire's residential care and other social care services (except the day centres), you have to wonder whether the CSSIW's involvement would have made the slightest bit of difference, as she filled the chamber in County Hall with an impenetrable fog of jargon, triangulating and triage-ing her way through.

If the inspectors cannot or will not make themselves clear and understood, what hope is there for the "clients"?

The programme Eye on Wales can be found here.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

James Journal to get new owners?

Update 29 October

Here is Roy Greenslade's take on the news from the Guardian.


Blogger and journalist Jon Slattery has it from the Sunday Times that Daily Mail and General Trust is about to sell off its Northcliffe regional publishing group to David Montgomery for £110 million.

Montgomery, who originally comes from Northern Ireland, has a long and sometimes turbulent history in the newspaper publishing industry. He has at various times been editor of the News of the World, worked as a senior executive for Rupert Murdoch and run the Mirror Group following the death of the late and unlamented Robert Maxwell. From there he went on to found the Mecom Group, an investment company which was set up to invest in newspaper and media companies in Europe.

His time at Mecom was marked by a series of boardroom battles, and Montgomery hit the headlines in Germany when he acquired the Berliner Verlag group of left-leaning newspaper titles, with fears that he would undermine the editorial integrity of the newspapers.

Unsurprisingly, Montgomery has made quite a few enemies along the way. One of his fiercest critics is Richard Stott, former editor of the Daily Mirror, who wrote in 2006 that,

It is easy to form the impression he doesn't much take to the human race and the human race hasn't much taken to him. 

Editorial staff in Berlin described Montgomery as a locust who would descend on newspaper titles, strip them clean and then move on. He finally left Mecom at the beginning of 2011 following a shareholders' revolt.

Rumours that Montgomery has been interested in Northcliffe have been circulating for some time, and according to some, he is working in partnership with his former colleagues at Trinity Mirror plc. Trinity's titles in South Wales include the Western Mail and the South Wales Echo.

Whether any of this will come to pass remains to be seen, but unlike Berlin, one thing people in Carmarthenshire won't have to worry about is any attack on the editorial integrity of the Carmarthen Journal. Events will no doubt be closely monitored from County Hall, which has been dictating the paper's editorial line for the last couple of years.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Misuse of Council Resources

Over in Pembrokeshire, which probably also claims to be the best-run council in Wales with the best Chief Executive, etc., etc., the fur has been flying once again over the party which is not a party, known in Haverfordwest for bizarre reasons that need not detain us as the Independent Plus Political Group.

Just like its cousins over the border in Carmarthenshire, this group looks, acts and sounds like a political party, but pretends that it is no such thing. A mole in the council has provided blogger and county councillor Jacob Williams with copies of files which show that the IPPG was busy planning its election campaign earlier this year and using council computers and resources to do so.

The Public Services Ombudsman is taking time off from his job in Carmarthenshire to investigate the claims (see Western Mail article here).

Of course, it is out of the question that the Carmarthenshire Independents would ever do anything like that because it is most definitely against the rules.

Funnily enough, though, Meryl Gravell did let slip at a recent council meeting that she, Pam Palmer and various other important personages had sat down with Kevin Madge to discuss various electoral matters, including Plaid Cymru's election manifesto.

Perhaps this took place in Trimsaran when Kev popped over to mow the lawn, or did it take place in the Fuhrerbunker in County Hall?

Any public-spirited moles in County Hall who have any further information should get in touch. Discretion guaranteed.

An official record

Writing minutes of meetings is as much an art as a science. There are lots of guides available giving sometimes conflicting advice, but in essence they should be a brief record of what was discussed, what was agreed, who is responsible for any follow-up actions, and not least they should be strictly neutral.

When the subject has come up in meetings of Carmarthenshire County Council in the past, the Chief Executive has explained that minutes should not be verbatim accounts of who said what, but should merely record the points discussed and what was agreed. No mention of neutrality.

Since it is extremely rare for any of the agenda items at council meetings not to be agreed, the logical outcome would simply be a copy of the agenda with the word "Approved" under each item, and for the most part that is what we get from the County Council. In the case of the most recent meeting of the full council on 10 October, for example, 12 of the 17 items listed were "resolved that they be received" (approved to you and me).

Three further items were standard apologies, announcements and declarations of interest.

So that leaves two items with a bit of wording. The first concerns a non-contentious motion dealing with standards in education which was approved unanimously. The other concerns a discussion on the council's Annual Report and Improvement Plan.

As good minute writers know, you should be very careful in your use of adjectives if your aim is to be neutral. Adjectives add colour, and should be used sparingly if at all.

No such qualms in County Hall, however. In the first line of the report on the discussion, we are told that the council is not just committed, but deeply committed to its goals.

Someone, we are not told who, "pointed out" (not a neutral term) that the council maintains an exciting investment programme, and the Residents Satisfaction Survey, which showed an approval rating of 82%, was an incredible achievement.

If we stick with the standard dictionary definition of incredible, then the minutes were accurate, although somehow that is probably not what the minute taker meant.

Next we are told that some councillors wanted to know if the council's £10.8 million savings target for 2011-12 had been delivered. We are not told what the answer was, and so can probably assume that it was not.

There are a couple of hints that not everybody was quite bowled over by these glossy documents, which told us that the people of Carmarthenshire are healthier, happier, richer and more fulfilled than ever before, and that things are set to get even better. The minutes note in response that almost everything set out in the report had been achieved.

As for the jargon which people complained about (actually there were complaints about the use of glossy colour pictures and silly symbols, but that complaint was not noted), the minutes say merely that the Chief executive explained that these documents were really meant for the eyes of regulators and government departments rather than the public.

Which leaves us wondering whether the bureaucrats in Cardiff really need lots of pictures of happy, smiling people, smiley faces and pictures of keys to symbolise key targets.

Thanks are then offered to the Council's staff for the authority's excellent performance last year.

And that's it.

Not a single word appears in the minutes of the various attempts made by councillors to force a discussion of the misuse of council resources in the case of the Sainsbury's press release, although this took up quite a bit of time. No mention is made of the attempt by Cllr Siân Caiach to raise concerns about pollution in the Burry inlet, and no mention is made of an attempt to table an emergency motion.

None of that happened, according to the official record.

Another councillor who complained about the extremely high cost of photocopying in the county's libraries got away with it, despite the subject of photocopying not being on the agenda. However, he received no response at the meeting, and his concerns did not make it into the minutes either.

Any councillors hoping that there will be any official record of concerns they raise on behalf of their constituents at council meetings will hope in vain.


While we are on the subject of minutes, it is pleasing to note that one of the two deputy leaders, Cllr Pam Palmer, has finally got round to holding a formal meeting, six months into her £31,120 per year job.

The meeting was held on 4 October and started at 2.20pm and finished 20 minutes later.

Under review was the Council's use of surveillance under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. Pam was content that everything was in order, and she approved a revised policy to be used as the policy for the next 12 months. We are not told what the policy or its revisions are, or why this took as long as 20 minutes.

Pam's main focus, if we are to believe the Council, is Rural Affairs, and if we assume that surveillance is not really much to do with Rural Affairs, we are still waiting for her first official decision on anything to do with the countryside. Unless the council is carrying out secret surveillance on badgers.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Horse Trading

The Boundary Commission for Wales has published revised proposals for reducing the number of Westminster seats from 40 to 30 (here). Whether the plan will ever be implemented is another question because, with the LibDems set to join Labour in opposing the changes, the chances of this reform going through are slim. However a recent intervention by Jonathan Edwards opens up some very interesting possibilities.

Under the changes Wales stands to lose proportionally far more of its representation than England, Scotland or Northern Ireland (10, 31, 7 and 2 seats respectively) and we face a future in which an overwhelmingly non-Tory voting Wales ends up being governed by what would usually be Tory majority governments in Westminster.

Welsh votes would rarely count in determining who governs the UK, and the Welsh voice, barely heard in UK politics under Labour or the Tories, would never be more than an impotent squeak.

On the face of it, then, there is nothing to recommend the proposals in the case of Wales apart from fairness. Why should Aberconwy (electorate of just over 45,000 in 2010) count as much as Manchester Central (89,500)?

The reason for these discrepancies is that historically Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were compensated for being tied into a very unequal union with over-representation at Westminster.

As the Tories' proposals stand, then, Wales would lose a quarter of its representation, find itself even more marginalised in UK politics and have to put up with Tory governments in London to boot, with nothing in return.

In what is a textbook example of realpolitik, Jonathan Edwards is proposing to turn this bleak outlook to the advantage of Wales as a whole by offering to vote for the new boundaries the Tories are so desperate to get in return for a  new constitutional settlement with a substantial increase in the devolution of powers, including police, criminal justice, energy and broadcasting (see piece by Adrian Masters here).

If Plaid were joined by the SNP and the DUP, the Tories would be able to muster enough votes to get the measure through, and would be able to justify the concessions they have to make to the smaller parties by arguing that they were doing it in the interests of their beloved union.

If he pulls it off, Jonathan will almost single-handedly have transformed the future of Wales.

On a more parochial level, Cneifiwr was disappointed to see from the Boundary Commission's revised proposals that Cenarth ward (known to the rest of the world as Newcastle Emlyn) is still set to be hived off to a new constituency made up of Ceredigion with a bit of Pembrokeshire thrown in.

Apparently the people of Maenclochog were up in arms about being lumped in with all those hill farmers and hambons to the north, and have persuaded the Commission that they would be much better off in the more upmarket constituency of South Pembrokeshire, so to try to balance the numbers, the Commission has decided to grab another bit of Carmarthenshire in the shape of Llangeler ward (better known as Drefach Felindre) and chuck that into the new Ceredigion and North Pembrokeshire constituency instead.

Moving little bits of Wales from one constituency to another is not the end of the world, but if the proposals go ahead, the people of Newcastle Emlyn and Drefach Felindre will find that while they are still in Camarthenshire for council purposes, they will vote in three different constituencies for Westminster, the Welsh Assembly and the European Parliament.

The Commission justifies these changes by arguing that Maenclochog has closer ties with Narberth than its does with distant Cardigan, and that Llangeler has close ties with Llandysul. Both statements are true, but in making them the Commission is highlighting the absurdity of council and political boundaries in many parts of Wales.

What would have made much more sense for Wales was a single commission charged with looking at all council and other boundaries in Wales with a view to scrapping a good many of the 22 local authorities we are saddled with at the same time as rejigging the Westminster and Welsh Assembly constituencies.

But that would have required the sort of leadership and imagination Labour seems to be incapable of giving us.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

A Council through the Looking Glass

“When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more, nor less.” 
[Lewis Carroll - Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There]

The world of Carmarthenshire County Council is a strange place where nothing is quite as it seems. What most of us would call black in the real world is, by order, declared to be white, and vice versa.

So it is that the council's view of Carmarthenshire is of a place where we are all healthier, happier, richer, better educated and better cared for than ever before. And things will get even better. 

 "The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday — but never jam to-day." [ibid]

That was the essence of the reports which were presented to councillors at the most recent council meeting, and anyone who dared say otherwise was ruled to be deviating from the agenda.

The agenda is set by the Chief Executive, or as Lewis Carroll explained,

"The time has come", the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing wax —
Of cabbages — and Kings —
And why the Sea is boiling hot —
And whether pigs have wings."

Pigs definitely do have wings in Carmarthenshire, and if the Chief Executive puts cabbages on the agenda, then that is what will be discussed. Other types of brassica, such as cauliflower or purple sprouting broccoli, are out of order, and cabbage root fly simply doesn't exist. Cllr Caiach, please take note.

Unfortunately a persistent minority of councillors kept trying to talk about things which the Chief Executive did not want to hear at the last council meeting, and so now, as Caebrwyn reports, all 74 councillors in Carmarthenshire have received a strangely worded e-mail purportedly written by the lovely Siân Thomas, who this year adorns the Chair of Council.

The legalistic tone of this message and the highly constipated style in which it is written lead Cneifiwr to point the finger of suspicion at a rather less amusing pair of authors. The Chair, a witty, erudite and perfectly formed person, would never have turned the noun "agenda" into a verb, to start with. But the official fiction is that this dreary document is the work of the Chair.

The message refers back to the attempts by various councillors, most notably Darren Price, to raise the subject of the Madge-James-Sainsbury's press release.

When he tried to raise the subject under the heading of "making better use of council resources", he was told that misuse of council resources was not on the agenda, and so could not be discussed.

When he tried later to raise the issue as an urgent item, the Chief Executive and Monitoring Officer (aka the Acting Head of Law) searched their constitution in vain for a clause that would prevent this. When they couldn't find one, they invented a new rule, and when Cllr Price pointed out that there was no such rule, they told the Chair to call the meeting to a close.

The Chief Executive and Monitoring Officer came up with the rather novel argument that by discussing matters which were not exactly as spelled out on the agenda and trying to table emergency motions, councillors ran the risk of upsetting the public. They apparently believe that thousands of the county's residents scour the council's website each month and read the published meeting agendas before deciding whether or not to attend. The published agenda is therefore a bit like those tablets of stone handed down to Moses.

In reality, only about half a dozen members of the public ever turn up, and they are nearly always the same lost souls. Unusually, there were about 10 people in the gallery for the October meeting, and eight of those were very definitely hoping that the scandalous misuse of the press office would be discussed.

For some odd reason, the Chair's missive drops this argument about keeping the public informed in favour of a much more intimidating claim that by allowing emergency motions or changes in the published agenda, the council could be opening itself up to the threat of court action in a judicial review.

Quite how many actual cases of judicial review there have been anywhere in the British Isles brought by aggrieved individuals when a council meeting agenda was modified we do not know. A fair guess would be none.

At the October meeting the only potential objectors to an emergency notion were members of the ruling Labour/Independent coalition and senior officers (these days pretty much indistinguishable) on the one hand, and J Sainsbury plc on the other. 

Given that it is unlikely, even in litigious Carmarthenshire, that the council would take itself to court, we are left with Sainsbury's, and we can safely assume that Sainsbury's would be very unlikely to want to expose itself to the negative PR involved or upset its fan base in County Hall.

"Contrariwise," continued Tweedledee, "if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn't, it ain't. That's logic."

Reading through the note allegedly written by the Chair, a great deal of hot air is expended on explaining why emergency items will be as rare, if not rarer than hens' teeth, and even less desirable. Nevertheless, there seems to have been one instance of an emergency item being raised at a council meeting this year which was not on the published agenda.

Can you guess what that was?

At a meeting of the Executive Board held on 23 January this year, a mysterious item crops up in the minutes which was not on the published agenda. It related to a decision to fund the Chief Executive's libel cases against blogger Jacqui Thompson, although the minutes only say "an officer".

Jacqui issued proceedings for libel against the Chief Executive in the week leading up to 15 November 2011, but the Executive Board met on 28 November, 12 December and 4 January with no mention of a libel case. Given that it had been known about for more than five weeks, you have to wonder why the indemnity had to be raised as an urgent item without prior notice on 23 January.

Let's hope that that doesn't leave the council at risk of a judicial review.

"It's too late to correct it," said the Red Queen: "when you've once said a thing, that fixes it, and you must take the consequences." [ibid]

And here, shamelessly cut and pasted from Caebrwyn's website is the constipated message:

Note to all Councillors from Cllr. Sian E. Thomas, Chair Carmarthenshire County Council in Relation to “Urgent Items”.
“Following member interventions regarding discourtesy shown to the role of Chair at the County Council meeting of the 10th October 2012 I write to clarify my expectation in respect of any requests by members to have non-agenda’d items considered at meetings by reason of urgency.
The law provides that an item of business may not be considered at a meeting unless:
a)      a copy of the agenda, including the item, is open to inspection by the public for at least 3 clear days before the meeting; OR
b)      by reason of special circumstances, which shall be specified in the minutes, the Chair is of the opinion that the item should be considered at the meeting as a matter of urgency.
Considering a non-agenda’d matter at a meeting is susceptible to challenge in the Courts by means of Judicial Review. Therefore, the abiding expectation must be that items should be agenda’d.  Agenda items normally flow naturally from the cycle of meetings but any items outside of that process may be suggested to the Chief Executive, who is the Proper Officer charged with setting the agendas for meetings.
Where a member considers that a matter which has not been agenda’d should be considered urgently at a meeting the member should consult me or the Chief Executive (or the Chair of the relevant meeting) in advance of the meeting on his or her item and state the reasons for the urgency of the item. “Urgent” is commonly understood as being something “compelling or requiring immediate attention”. In the context of Council business matters may be important but not necessarily urgent in that they can wait until the next meeting. Members will therefore need to be able to demonstrate to the Chair why an item must be considered at a meeting outside of the usual public notice provisions, including explaining what the consequences of not hearing an item at the meeting could be.
The responsibility for justifying the special circumstances for allowing an item to be discussed without public notice of it having been given, and of recording that special circumstance in the minutes, is the Chair’s and because of the potential for legal challenge it is imperative that the Chair be given the courtesy of being consulted in advance of the meeting in order that he or she can consider the request, and take advice upon it if necessary. Advice may need to be taken on whether the reasons given in support of urgency are likely to be justifiable in law, whether the subject matter can be heard in an open meeting or should be held in camera, whether the item should be taken at the end of the other items of business or should be accelerated up the agenda because of its urgency and the actions which may need to be taken in consequence of any likely resolutions made on it, and indeed on whether the nature of the item is one which legally falls within the remit of the meeting in question, bearing in mind the difference in law between Council and executive functions.
It is difficult to specify a time period for consulting the Chair because urgent items, by their very nature, are matters which arise at short notice. However, I consider that there will be very few occasions where a member is unable to consult the Chair at least 1 or 2 days before a meeting. On occasions when a matter only becomes known on the day of a meeting the Chair, or Chief Executive, must be consulted before the commencement of the meeting.
The Chair’s decision on whether to allow an item on grounds of urgency or not is final and should not become a matter of debate across the Chamber.
Cllr. Sian E Thomas
Chair of Council 

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Extremists and eternal conscious punishment

The standard reaction of Carmarthenshire County Council to any criticism is to dismiss the critics as a small and unrepresentative minority. In the case of the Towy Community Church bowling alley, the list of critics now includes MP Jonathan Edwards, Unison, sections of the press (although not the James Journal), the BBC and many ordinary people who are aghast at this use of public money and the outsourcing of council activities to an evangelical group.

In a switch of PR tactics, it seems that County Hall's Ministry of Spin has taken to branding the bloggers as extremists. Extremist what, though? As almost nobody, no matter how loopy, thinks that their views are extreme, judgement is probably best left to you, dear reader.

Both Cneifiwr and Caebrwyn (who carries an excellent write-up on this story here) have been sounding alarm bells about this project for a long time. As the Western Mail points out in its latest piece, the church's statement of core values says that it believes in the literal truth of the Bible, and that those who reject Christ face eternal conscious punishment.

In its response to criticism, the church emphasises that it wants to help needy people, but can't help adding that it is "passionate about being good news to our communities". And that is the core of the problem when religious groups such as this become involved in social work, because while good deeds are fine, what matters most is persuading others (in this case the weak and vulnerable) to believe what you believe. Put crudely, it's all about winning new recruits.

If that were not the case, the church would be persuading its members to volunteer to work and raise funds for the Citizens Advice Bureau, rather than promoting its own brand of religious debt counselling.

In these times of rapidly rising food and fuel costs, when pay, pensions and benefits are nowhere near keeping up with the cost of living, helping struggling families and individuals to get to grips with their debt problems is more important than ever before, and yet Carmarthenshire is cutting its aid to Citizens Advice by £32,000 over the next three years.

No doubt the council would say that there is no link between the funding for Towy Community Church project and its cuts to CAB, but £32,000 is a drop in the ocean compared with the financial backing the council is giving to the church, and the net result is that CAB will have to cut its services just as the church starts providing a service in a format which the national umbrella organisation for debt counselling, Advice UK, finds inappropriate and unacceptable.

In response to concerns that the church might discriminate against people with different beliefs, on the grounds of sexual orientation, lifestyle, etc., it told the Western Mail that it has a policy in place to make sure this won't happen.

At the same time, however, Towy Community Church is an active member of a number of organisations, including the Evangelical Alliance and Gweini, which campaign against all sorts of things that most of us associate with an open and tolerant society. The Alliance's website contains lots of useful advice on how to discriminate against people you don't like while staying within the law. For example, it gives advice on how to make sure that groups you dislike can't hire church halls (this may come in useful for Towy Community Church's "auditorium" and adjacent church hall). It also approvingly cites a case in which a man who was working as a volunteer for a church in return for board and lodging was thrown out when church elders suspected that he was an active homosexual. Fortunately this had a happy ending, with the church proving that as a volunteer, the man did not enjoy employment rights, while the man himself ended up homeless.

It's good to see that the Alliance and the evangelicals are moving with the times and have ditched all that sentimental nonsense contained in the Sermon on the Mount. A pity that the Equalities Act 2010 is a bit of a headache, but fortunately Towy Community Church has found a partner in Carmarthenshire County Council which doesn't seem to be too bothered about such things.

The Western Mail has done its sums and come up with a total of £1.4 million in grants and loans from the council, the Welsh Government and the Big Lottery Fund (£1.1 million of that total is in grants). Not counted in that figure is the value of the premises themselves, which are being gifted to the church on a 99-year lease at a peppercorn rent.

The total value of publicly funded aid for Phase 1 of the project is actually in excess of £2 million, and the church's own contribution is decidedly modest. In mid 2011 councillors were told that the church was putting in £17,000, although by the end of that year the figure had leapt to £388,000. As noted at the time, it is not at all clear how that figure was arrived at, and the church and the council also put widely different values on unpaid work which had, it was claimed, been carried out by volunteers.

The Welsh Government says that its funding does not "cover the debt counselling service", although it is reasonable to ask how the government can be so sure. After all, the funds will be used to convert the former creamery building into a centre which will be home to a range of activities, including the bowling alley and the debt counselling service. It is a chicken and egg story, in other words.

The project is scheduled to be rolled out in two phases, with Phase 2 including a 500 or 600 seat auditorium (the church and the council can't quite agree on this point). Both are adamant that the auditorium is not a church, although it will be used for church services and comes with a church hall attached.

The council also dishonestly claimed in a recent press release that the two phases of the project were not linked, although in the agreement which was presented to councillors, the church will be given 5 years to complete Phase 2 from the end of Phase 1. That sounds like linkage, doesn't it?

And since we are in the land of chickens and eggs, it is reasonable to point out that Phase 2 could not happen without Phase 1.

Here is the architect's description of the project.

At a recent council meeting the Chief Executive told councillors in response to a question about a different "third sector" organisation, that the council did not normally carry out due diligence in such cases because it relied on central government having done its work.

As we know from the Awema case, that could prove to be a very risky thing to do.

Awema received more than £7 million in public funds, and Phase 1 of the Towy Church project is receiving more than £2 million from the public purse and the Lottery. And that is just for starters, of course. Before the project had even got underway, the church had to go back to the council at the end of 2011 for more money, with the council's top brass telling councillors that the church needed a loan because it had successfully reduced its need for bank loans. Yes, really. And most of the councillors failed to spot the contradiction.

If the Welsh Government wants to demonstrate that it has learned something from the Awema scandal, it should call a halt to the project now and undertake a proper audit of the scheme. Here are just a few questions which they might like to think about:
  • Why are there so many discrepancies between what the council and church have said about the project? There are significant discrepancies in the financial information given as well as which activities are covered, and when they will be launched.
  • Has the council complied with the requirements of the 2010 Equalities Act and received answers from the church to show that it has in place more than just paper policies to prevent discrimination?
  • The church has made changes to its legal status and financial reporting which mean that none of its accounts are now available for public inspection. It said it did this on legal advice, but as a recipient of so much public money, it is reasonable to expect the church to be fully transparent. It is currently anything but.
  • What exactly are the counselling and therapy rooms to be used for? Will the church give categorical assurances that it will not revive plans for a Mercy Ministries hostel or similar "counselling" sessions in Carmarthen?
  • Why does the church insist on providing its own debt counselling service when there is an established service operated by the CAB which could do with more volunteers and financial support?
  • The Big Lottery Fund says that it will only fund projects which show a commitment to providing a bilingual service in the form of bilingual websites, etc, and it recently rejected an application from one of the papurau bro on these grounds. To what extent does the church meet these conditions? Currently only information in English is available.
  • The church and the council need to act to dispel public suspicions of inappropriate links between the two organisations. All councillors and senior officers should be required to declare any interests they have in the church, including membership or attendance at church services and events as well as any financial interests.
  • Finally, what independent monitoring is in place to safeguard the public interest? The church has appointed its own panel, but is that really adequate?

In extremis, Y Cneifiwr.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Praying for debt relief

For those who have been following the Towy Community Church story, today's Western Mail carries a report looking at the evangelical group's plans in general and for a debt counselling service in particular         (here).

More to come on this later in the week.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Dyfed Powys Police Commissioner - Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum


For a very worrying report, check out Plaid Wrexham on the motives of some independent candidates.


Thanks to Selwyn Runnett, the St Clears LibDem, for pointing out the other day that anyone who wants to run a serious campaign in November's elections for police commissioners should expect to have to fork out at least £75,000. In Dyfed Powys, which is geographically the largest police area in Wales and England, a half-decent campaign would almost certainly cost more.

The whole idea of elected police commissioners was the brainwave of the Tories, and the legislation was pushed through with the help of the LibDems despite their failure to get either reform of the voting system or reform of the House of Lords through. As someone memorably said, this is not so much a coalition as a hostage situation.

Having voted the idea through, the LibDems now find that they cannot afford to field candidates in Dyfed Powys, even though parts of Powys and Ceredigion could still be counted as LibDem powerbases.

Plaid Cymru for its part has always opposed the idea on principle and is not fielding candidates.

Labour says that it is opposed to the idea, but is fielding candidates anyway with the aim, it says, of campaigning against cuts. If Labour had stuck to its principles and refused to take part, it is more than likely that the Tories would have had to back down and shelve the whole idea.

Labour's claim that Labour police commissioners will somehow be able to reverse cuts to police funding can also be taken with a pinch of salt, since the commissioners will be dependent for most of their budgets on the Home Office and Treasury in London.

In Dyfed Powys Labour has actually helped make matters considerably worse with fiascos such as the use of PFI schemes to fund white elephants including the new police station in Ammanford - now closed and mothballed. Despite being no use at all to the police, the building in Ammanford will continue to be a massive drain on Dyfed Powys police for years and years to come, and only last year Carwyn Jones came along for the celebrations held to mark the final opening of the massive new police Strategic Co-ordination Centre near Carmarthen, funded by Cardiff.

If Labour really wanted to "put more bobbies on the beat" (where have we heard that one before?), as it says, perhaps it should not have wasted tens of millions of pounds on schemes such as these and used the money instead to keep local police stations open and safeguard frontline jobs.

The Labour candidate in the elections is Christine Gwyther, whose career to date can be summarised as follows:
  • 1999 - elected Assembly Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire
  • 1999 - appointed first Minister of Agriculture in devolved Welsh Government
  • 2000 - sacked as Minister of Agriculture by Rhodri Morgan as she was preparing to head off to the Royal Welsh Show
  • 2007 - loses constituency to Conservative Angela Burns
  • 2010 - contests Carmarthen East and Dinefwr in general election and loses
  • 2011 - fails in her attempt to win back Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire
And that's it. Downhill since 2000. According to her website, she is now working in "front-line community development".

The Labour Party says on its main website that its candidates are talented and experienced. If Dyfed Powys is anything to go by, the party could be prosecuted under the Tades Description Act.

Christine's website (here) appears to have been knocked up in about half an hour. After a couple of paragraphs of waffle about the election, she tells us,

You can find out more about me and my vision for policing in Dyfed Powys on this website.

Except that you can't. There is nothing at all about her vision and precious little about her on the rest of the site, probably because she has no vision and her record is not exactly one to boast about.

Back in London, Ed Milliband explains:

Labour's talented and experienced candidates for Police and Crime Commissioners will campaign hard against these government cuts, putting neighbourhood policing first with bobbies on the beat and a promise not to privatise the neighbourhood patrol or leave it only to PCSOs.

Strange then that as evidence of Labour's commitment to real policing, Christine says:

The Labour Welsh Government is helping cushion the blow [of government spending cuts. Ed.] by introducing 500 community support officers across Wales.

And that's pretty much the entire website except for a section headed Cymraeg. It would have been better to use the heading Scymraeg. Here is the opening line:

Credaf mai hanfod plismona ym pobl, ac felly hanfod f’ymgyrch fydd pobl hefyd.

There is no Labour manifesto, and if any readers have been contacted by anyone from Christine Gwyther's campaign team, they can consider themselves lucky. Most of her energy seems to be going into campaigning through Facebook and Twitter, where she has 35 followers (how many of those are members of the public?).

By contrast, the Tory candidate, Christopher Salmon, has 86 followers on Twitter, where his 4 most recent Tweets include an "excellent supper" in Carmarthen and a "delicious lunch" in Aberystwyth with Tory leader Andrew RT Davies, with whom he was discussing "the future of Wales". The mind boggles.

Salmon believes that his background as a son of the landed gentry (Winchester, Oxford and Sandhurst) and an army officer (website here) has taught him the value of "sound common sense". His startling insight into policing is that crime prevention is what it's all about. If we can prevent crime, there will be no need for expensive detectives and prosecutors.

Unlike his Labour opponent, Salmon's website contains a diary which tells us where to find him. In the next week he has two community meetings, and will be at the Rhayader Horse Sales on 27 October. The following week is rather less busy, with a lunch at Peterstone Court and a harvest supper in Llanrhaeadr.

Also unlike Ms Gwyther, Salmon does tell us a bit about what he thinks. Andrew Mitchell was stupid to swear at police officers, he told us in September, but it was "time to get police tanks off the Downing Street lawn".

Unlike Ms Gwyther, Salmon is having no truck with all this Welsh language nonsense, and his website is devoid of Welsh, mangled, misspelt or otherwise, although he is proud of his ability to speak Russian.

As Cneifiwr has noted previously (fuller profile here), Salmon is a keen military historian, and has contributed pieces to Conservative Home and the Murdoch Times. Unfortunately, if a piece on the Boer War is anything to go by, facts and dates are not his forte.

If Cneifiwr can summon up the energy, we will follow these two great hopes for Dyfed Powys to the finish line on 15 November, although they might just as well toss a coin and get it over with now.