Wednesday 8 February 2012

February Council Meeting - Part 2: No room for improvement

The first major piece of business was the Wales Audit Office's "Improvement Report" (see a recent post for details). A smartly dressed young woman from the WAO gave a mercifully short introduction before questions from the floor.

As usual, debate was divided between those who saw the report as vindication of the Gravell regime, and those who clearly felt that it was a political whitewash.

A number of councillors seized on criticism contained in the report that elected councillors had undermined council policies by voting against the closure of care homes in Llanelli.  Quite a lot of the ensuing debate was about whether or not the closure of the care homes had ever actually been council policy in the first place.

Man of the Match this month was, as so often, Cllr John Edwards (Plaid) who gave one of the very few speeches during the entire three hours that received applause. He began by reminding the auditor that the office of Auditor General was separate from government and supposed to be independent from it. This report had become political, he said, and he suspected that it had been written not for the council as a whole, but for the Executive Board.

He added that the auditor had come dangerously close to interfering in the democratic process and begun proposing policy changes, citing recommendations to reduce the number of scrutiny committees as a further example.

Cllr Winston Lemon (Plaid) went on the attack several times. Councillors had not reversed policy when they voted against the closure of the care homes, he said, they had made it. He asked the auditor to amend the report to put this right.

Jane Tremlett (Independent) rose to opine, in her rather haughty voice, that the Executive Board should inform Cllr Lemon of what the council's policy was. But there was no need to wait for that because the Director of Social Care, Health and Housing, Bruce McLernon, decided he had better say something, but he fumbled and the cat was let out of the bag.

"In a sense", he began, the policy had been all about efficiency and rationalisation, thereby revealing that just like the "policy" in a sense on filming, the council leadership makes up some policies as it goes along, as it suits them. In a sense.

In the first of his many interventions, the bulky form of Cllr Stephen James (Independent) heaved itself to a vertical position.

Cllr James has long been rumoured to be keen to squeeze himself into Meryl Gravell's job, and it was very possibly the awful thought of "Leader James" which caused any wavering Independents to vote in favour of keeping Meryl today. He showed his hand.

Mr James, who says that he is a part-time pub landlord and deputy chairman of Llanelli Conservative Club, is what the Daily Mail marketing people would regard as part of their core readership. Surveying what he called "the Principality" (whatever Wales is, it is emphatically not a principality), he launched into a song of praise for the wise and strong leadership of Meryl Gravell.

He finished his pontifications with an attack on Cllr Siân Caiach for criticising the audit. Cllr Caiach asked the chair for right of reply.

The chair, Ivor Jackson, was on particularly dreadful form. Throughout the meeting he managed to combine incompetence with partisanship and bullying in equal measures. He stared into the distance, his thoughts possibly on lunch. Someone on the podium managed to bring him round. Ah, yes, right of reply.

Cllr Caiach warned that the report risked being seen as purely an endorsement of the council's leadership, but got no further. The chair interrupted her. Cllr Caiach turned up the volume, but the chair stood and glowered. "Sit down, Cllr Caiach", he thundered. Realising that she was about to be thrown out of the chamber and disqualified from voting, Cllr Caiach resumed her seat.

Whereas Cllr Caiach was given just a few seconds of air-time, Labour leader, Kevin Madge, was allowed to ramble on and on with one of his cliche-ridden, pointless "things are getting better" speeches. The councillors started getting restless. He paid tribute to the "leadership" (Meryl) and the officers, before at long last running out of wind.

The Dear Leader herself rose to set out her stall. The report was a complete vindication of everything the council stood for, she claimed, and went on to say that the Carmarthenshire Home Standard for council homes went to show how deeply attached to the principle of consultation the council was.

Of course, difficult decisions, such as Equal Pay (otherwise known as Single Status) had all been very difficult, and that is why she had decided to give all her staff a 1% pay rise in the next budget. As for niggling complaints about the lack of transparency and democracy in the council, opposition councillors were welcome to talk to the chief executive or other officers at any time.

Apart from the Llanelli care home issue, the report also annoyed opposition councillors for its recommendations to slim down the number of scrutiny committees. Carmarthenshire apparently has more of these than any other council in Wales, and the auditor noted that a number of them had "attendance issues". Several pointed out that some of the committees had far too wide a brief, and were unable to carry out proper scrutiny. Getting rid of them was not going to improve anything.

Cllr Arthur Davies from the People First group asked the auditor about the council's constitutional tinkering to silence minority groups, and about the status of the shadowy Business Management Group, which does not exist under the council's constitution, issues no minutes and is completely closed to the outside world.

The smooth-talking auditor was stumped, so the chief executive came to the rescue.

The Business Management Group had no power, he said, it simply made recommendations (a bit like the late Colonel Gadaffi's role in Libya). However, the Welsh Government was planning a Local Government Measure which might formalise the arrangement.

Cllr Hazel Evans, who was elected 16 months ago, said her brief experience of the County Council had been disappointing. There was no involvement of ordinary members, and just like the public, councillors were also excluded from meetings whenever some sensitive issue was exempted (exemptions have been applied to a huge range of matters, including transferring public toilets to community councils).

Cllr Evans might have added that recently her community council had had to resort to the Freedom of Information Act to winkle basic information out of County Hall on car parks in Newcastle Emlyn.

The chair brought discussion to an end, and the audit team departed for Cardiff with a few fleas in their ears.

Will the WAO take any notice? Not likely. Is the office's standing being damaged by partisan reporting like this? You bet.

More to follow for anyone who can stand it, as we inch slowly towards the anti-climax.

1 comment:

Jack Old Oak said...

I thought we had fought two wars to safeguard our freedom of speech - but apparently not!
It would appear to be "dead in the water" in Carmarthenshire County Council, where councillors, rightly so, who try to speak to criticise the actions and pronouncements of the Chief Executive (who should remember he is a public SERVANT!) and certain self-important councillors are stopped in their tracks!
They say power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.....certain persons, both elected and employed, ought to take a look in the mirror....