Monday 31 October 2011

Junk Mail and the true meaning of "consider"

After a week spent up in North Wales it was good to come home to some excellent news: Jacqui Thompson, alias Caebrwyn, won the award for the best political blog at this year's Wales Blog Awards. A very deserving winner who has succeeded in putting the spotlight on the rotten borough that is Carmarthenshire County Council.

In her latest series of posts, Caebrwyn has shown again why public scrutiny of this local authority is so important, even uncovering another sinister change to the constitution which was buried deep in the agenda of the last meeting of the full council meeting. So deep in fact, that it went through unnoticed and without any discussion whatsoever.

This blog has commented again and again on the perpetual tinkering with the council's constitution. The last meeting of the full council considered two changes: delegation of more powers to planning officers and a change in the rules on procedures for submitting motions for debate.

There was no discussion at all on the delegation of more powers to planning officers, and after some passionate pleas from a minority of councillors to safeguard free speech and democracy, the proposal to raise the threshold for motions was duly passed. As Caebrywn has discovered, no other council in Wales has anywhere near such a high threshold, with motions needing the support of 7 or 8 councillors (the drafting of the change is unclear on this point) compared with just one or two in almost all other Welsh councils.

Although a minority of Plaid Cymru councillors voted against the amendment, the Plaid leader on the council, Cllr Peter Hughes Griffiths, defended his decision to support it on the grounds that it would prevent individual councillors or minority groups from submitting motions for debate which lacked substance. This was a reference to the People First group which has tried unsuccessfully on a number of recent occasions to secure a debate on a range of topics, including the closure of day clubs for the elderly. What Cllr Hughes Griffiths forgot was that none of the motions submitted by People First had ever made it to the chamber, but were all vetoed by the Chair and Chief Executive. So the constitution was changed to prevent something from happening which has never actually happened.

Tucked away deep in the same document was another rule change to alter the procedures for the submission of petitions by the public to the council. Until now, petitions had to be submitted to the Chair of the Council, whereas now they will have to be sent to the Chief Executive.

The justification for this change is to enable the Chief Executive to direct petitions to "the most appropiate political decision-making group for consideration". In practice that means that he will be able to bypass the full council and send petitions "for consideration" to the Executive Board, where there is never any discussion on anything and where everything is always approved unanimously. In other words, petitions which the Chief Executive does not like (i.e. in reality all of them) will be treated like junk mail.

Sadly, this change will make precious little practical difference because even when petitions were submitted to the full council, no debate was permitted under the constitution. But at least members of the public could have the satisfaction of knowing that their grievances would be heard by all of the councillors and the press instead of just the ruling elite, which is extremely unlikely ever to listen to anything which smacks of criticism of their decisions and policies (you only have to recall council leader Meryl Gravell ticking off councillors for showing "extreme weakness" by listening to people protesting against school closures).

Thanks to the new rule, bad news, criticism and unwelcome PR can safely be buried unnoticed by the ruling Executive Board in rather less time than it takes an abbatoir to deal with a pet lamb.

The change also undermines an important democratic principle, which is that petitions should be submitted to elected representatives who are accountable to the public, rather than officers who are not.

If this were not enough, there is plenty more tinkering with the constitution to come. The Executive Board's Forward Work Programme sets out a timetable for the next raft of changes in early 2012. No indication of what those changes might be will be available for another 4 months.

The latest meeting of the Executive Board on 31 October is an unusually busy one with a large number of items up for "consideration" (if consideration can be used to describe something normally despatched in well under a minute).

Three items concern what the council euphemistically calls its "Modernising Education Programme" (i.e. school closures). Two of the items concern highly controversial plans for schools in Llanelli, Llandeilo and Llandovery, and both have attracted formal objections from boards of governors, parents, etc. That means the final decisions will now have to go to the Welsh Government. The third announces the start of the statutory consultation on the primary school at Cwmifor, near Llandeilo.

Anyone familiar with how schools are closed in Carmarthenshire may feel a sense of deja vu when they read that there has been a sudden drop in pupil numbers at the school. That is usually achieved by undermining a school over a period of a couple of years and suggesting that it may not have much of a future. Stand back and watch pupil numbers fall as parents decide that they had better send their children somewhere else, and then start your statutory consultation. Simples.

Technically, the Executive Board is supposed to consider (yes, that word again) the objections, and that is what the agenda formally states. In the next breath, however, the board is recommended to plough ahead and approve the plans anyway. That kind of gives the game away about the meaning of the word "consider" in Carmarthenshire. If the council were truthful, it would use the word "ignore".

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