The motion, brought forward by Peter Hughes Griffiths (Plaid), strongly criticised a speech made by council leader Meryl Gravell when she visited Chooselife in Llanelli for their fifteenth anniversary party. You may recall she described people protesting against the proposed downgrade of the local hospital as "rabble", and made unflattering comparisons between council employees and Alan Andrews, who runs Chooselife.
Chooselife does not have a website of its own, but it does have an active Facebook site, and Mr Andrews reacted very angrily to the complaints about Meryl's speech. Beginning by saying that Chooselife is not political, he went on to say that the criticism of the council leader was "all lies".
Back in County Hall, 10 Independent councillors came up with a series of last minute amendments to Plaid's motion. If these had been voted through, the motion would have changed from criticising Meryl Gravell to a motion praising Chooselife and its work.
As we know, the amendments were eventually withdrawn, but not before it had become clear to all present that Chooselife is a very politicised charity.
While the councillors were wrangling over the motion and the amendments, the Managing Director of Chooselife, Mr Andrews, was observing proceedings from the public gallery alongside a group of four young people. Councillors may have noticed that when the vote was tallied, and it became clear that Meryl had survived, a shout of joy went up from this small group.
Perhaps not unrelated to the support Meryl has shown for Chooselife was her suggestion in February 2010 that all drugs should be legalised.
Chooselife is a charity set up to help people recovering from drug and alcohol dependency, and it has generally received a good press for the work it has done. It also provides a range of other services for local families, but it is recovery from drug dependency for which it is best known. As we know, drugs can destroy not just individuals and families, but can also tear apart whole communities, and it is fair to say that not everyone in Llanelli is full of praise for the Chooselife centre, which has also been very successful in getting generous financial support from the public sector.
Let's take a closer look at Chooselife. Its accounts, as a charity, are available for inspection from the Charity Commission here. The latest set of accounts (for the year to April 2011) tell us:
- "The Charity also aims to advance education in accordance with Christian principles of children and adults"
- Demand for the charity's service has been growing in recent years, from 187 individual users in 2003-04 to 315 in 2010-11.
- Two of the charity's four trustees resigned during the year, and have since been replaced.
- The charity's free reserves fell to a dangerously low level during the year, and stood at just £11,000. Charity commission guidelines suggest that they should be running at between £67,000 and £115,000.
- The primary sources of funding are the Big Lottery Fund and Carmarthenshire County Council.
- The charity has an ambitious project to develop a new, much larger centre, and the accounts tell us that it will be relying on a significant grant from the Big Lottery Fund. The projected cost of this project is £850,000.
- The charity also aims to set up a social enterprise, and will be seeking grants from the county council for this purpose.
- In the year to April 2011, three of the centre's service users were reported as having successfully turned their lives around and found full-time employment.
- Staff salaries accounted for £195,000 of the centre's expenditure.
An interesting aspect of the charity's ethos is its dedication to "Christian" principles, something which is a recurring theme for a growing number of the county council's pet projects (e.g. the Towy Community Church bowling alley project and the Christmas toy box appeal).
Mr Andrews went to Cardiff in 2009 to address the Assembly's Cross-Party Group on Faith, a group which at the time included such luminaries as Mohammed Ashgar (no stranger to controversy) and Darren Millar. The subject of his presentation was "Tackling Substance Misuse - do Faith Groups have a role to play?"
A rhetorical question, no doubt.
The charity's accounts also show that one of the larger benefactors is the Llanelli Antioch Christian Centre, another of those ultra-evangelical groups with a strong American flavour which has a particular penchant for faith healing. For just £30 you could enroll in the church's Glory Healing School and learn all about matters such as "Prophetic Destiny, Free Hand Massage and Dream Interpretation Tables."
Another one to watch in Carmarthenshire's increasingly exotic special projects zoo.