Saturday 30 June 2012

Cyfryngau gorleol

O ystyried sefyllfa enbydus cymaint o bapurau lleol yng Nghymru, dyma brosiect diddorol o Gaernarfon sy'n cael ei gefnogi gan NESTA a'r Llywodraeth.

Friday 29 June 2012

County Hall flies the flag

But not this one. Two Union Jacks were reported to be fluttering in the breeze outside the council's headquarters today, but no Red Dragon.

Says it all, somehow.

Thursday 28 June 2012

British democracy - could do better

In this year of Union Jack waving celebration, it is worth asking how others see Britain.

What sparked my interest was a short article in the weekly German current affairs magazine Der Spiegel which reported on the latest findings of Bertelsmann's Transformations Index and an associated Democracy Barometer, which is produced by Swiss and German academics. The report stated that once again Sweden, Finland and Denmark had received the best ratings, while France was placed 28th out of 30. There was no mention of Britain, so I decided to take a closer look.

You can find the Democracy Barometer here, and as you can see from the map, the vast majority of the countries covered are in Western Europe and North America. To retrieve reports on individual countries, simply point and click with your mouse. The individual country reports are in English, although translated with a fairly heavy German accent.

Britain comes in 27th place, just ahead of France and just behind Poland, and what emerges is that on an overall  measure of quality of democracy Britian has consistently under-performed against its peers since the study began in 1990. The index of overall freedom, which looks at issues such as civil liberties and the rule of law (independence and impartiality of the judiciary) is in long-term decline.

A striking deficiency is in what the study terms "public sphere". This reflects the fact that Britian does not have a written constitution which guarantees freedom of speech, freedom of the press or freedom of assembly and association. We are also blessed, the report notes, with a press in which ownership is concentrated in a very few hands and which is overhwelmingly to the right of centre.

There is also decline in the quality of rule of law, largely because of restrictions related to anti-terrorist legislation. The report does not factor in the Government's latest plans to conduct many more court cases in secret.

Another measure looks at what the study terms "control". Here again Britain scores poorly because of the lack of checks and balances in the political system (inadequate powers of judicial review and lack of federal structures). The first-past-the-post voting system results in a lack of pluralism and often manifestly unfair electoral results.

Looked at over the long-term, Britain has improved transparency in public life, thanks to the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act, although once again the study does not factor in the latest attempts to undermine FOI and the growing tendency of many public authorities, particularly in local government, to flout the rules and principles underpinning FOI.

The study also notes the worrying decrease in public participation in politics and voting from 2001 onwards (another of Blair's legacies). Rather better is the slow improvement in the representation of women in politics.

France scores only slightly worse than Britain, mainly because of its lop-sided constitution which grants almost monarchical powers to the president.

Moving away from Britain, it is remarkable how far countries such as Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Poland have come since the end of Communism, all of which outperform the UK ("Mother of Parliaments" and Home of the Free, we are always reminded).

Although small countries generally perform well, it is striking that three with a strong British colonial legacy (Cyprus, Malta and Ireland) are relatively poor performers. To take Malta as an example, the report notes,

These [deficiencies] are, most notably, the full or partial absence of unrestricted constitutional provisions regarding the freedom of assembly, association, speech and the press as well as a weak civil society with regard to the organisation of professional, environmental or human rights interests.

Note how closely that mirrors the findings on the UK.

Sobering, isn't it?

Wednesday 27 June 2012

Dog bites man

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that it has been a little quieter than usual. One reason for that is that there appears to be very little news about.

The County Council went into election purdah in March of this year and has still not really emerged on the other side. Only one meeting of the full county council has taken place in the last four months, apart from the mutual back-slapping and fancy dress competition which was the AGM.

To date not one of the 5 scrutiny committees has met or even got around to publishing an agenda for their first meeting, whenever that might be.

Of the 9 executive board member decision meetings, only two have got round to holding a meeting to decide anything (dishing out grants for holiday cottages and appointing school governors).

The Executive Board, which holds brief public rubber-stamping meetings to approve (always unanimously) decisions which are taken at closed meetings, has so far met twice to discuss nothing much at all.

The County Hall press office, which can usually be relied on to throw out political propaganda and spin, has been reduced to pumping out an endless stream of headlines such as "Woman fined for dog fouling" or "Man fined for dropping cigarette end", or even "Five fined for dropping cigarette ends".

The only light relief has been County Hall's desperate attempts to associate itself with Olympic hurdler Dai Greene. Currently the Council is encouraging us to "Spot Dai Greene - join the fun and help find him!" This is about a cardboard cutout of the athlete which council officers have taken to trying to hide in a shopping centre. Yes, really.

Anyone hoping that the local press might tell us what is going on in searing exposes, serious investigative pieces or robust editorials will be disappointed if they turn to the pages of the venerable Carmarthen Journal.

Here is a selection of recent headlines:

"Cigarette Butts Warning - 5 fined for dropping cigarette ends" (funny, that rings a bell, doesn't it?)
"Council Leader and Garnant Councillor Kevin Madge will hold a surgery"
"Age no barrier" - a puff for 23 year-old Labour councillor Calum Higgins
"Leader's praise for Shane's MBE" - Kevin Madge tries to muscle in on Shane Williams' MBE.
"Meet Councillor" - a chance to meet Labour councillor Colin Evans

And that's about as exciting as it gets. For some strange reason, only Labour councillors seem to hold surgeries in the pages of the Journal.

Shane Williams' MBE had been reported previously, and a follow-up would only have been newsworthy if Kevin Madge had (let's use some journalese here) snubbed or slammed the award.

The only story with potential for anything more interesting was the Calum Higgins piece. The full headline gives you a pretty good idea of the drool that follows:

"Age is no barrier as young gun proves his worth on the council"

Calum Higgins was elected as Labour councillor for Tycroes in May, and he is the youngest councillor at 23.

In addition to being a county councillor, he works for AM Keith Davies, who as we know has been in the news quite a lot recently. Perhaps Calum could have been asked to spill the beans on just how the old boy managed to party all through the night and much of the morning with a raucous lady friend in tow. Was it all down to Sanatogen?

According to disgraced Labour candidate Shahid Hussein, the Labour young guns would occasionally go clubbing and freestyling in Cardiff. Did Keith join them? And for the benefit of older Tycroes residents, just what is freestyle?

And in addition to being a county councillor and part-time employee of Keith Davies AM, Calum is also a full-time law student in Cardiff. How does he do it?

Sadly, we do not know the answers to these and other interesting questions. As what the Journal's style book probably calls a "youngster", it would have been interesting to hear his views on the social media. Calum uses Twitter, for example, but one of his bosses, Kevin Madge, believes that it is the work of the devil. What does Calum think about filming council meetings?

The Journal's editor, Cathryn Ings, resigned suddenly and left the paper at very short notice in mid-May to "pursue other opportunities". Since then the poor old paper has been wallowing about as the search for a new captain goes on.

Like most local papers, the Journal is under huge pressure from its owners to cut costs and corners, and the recent loss of its (shared) politics reporter is making it look like a one-man-and-a-dog operation. Rumour has it that the dog is hoping to be re-housed soon too.

Circulation has been falling for some time. In 2009 it was around 19,000. In the second half of 2011 it fell by 11% to just under 16,500.

Unlike most local papers, the Journal also has to cope with a local authority which has come as close as a council in a western democracy can to using the sort of tactics more usually seen in third world dictatorships. True, Cathryn Ings did not end up floating face-first down the Towy, but by the end of her tenure, the threats and the bullying meant that real editorial control had passed up the road to County Hall which is known to have told the paper what it should and should not print on several recent occasions.

Anyone interested in taking the job on will need to be willing to turn their hands to everything from reporting to office cleaning and come without old-fashioned hang-ups about editorial integrity. There may be a few NoW hacks who fit the bill.

And to think that the Silly Season hasn't even started.

Tuesday 26 June 2012

Auditors, ombudsmen and councillors

Over the last few years quite a few residents of Carmarthenshire have decided to take their concerns about Carmarthenshire County Council to the Wales Audit Office, and all have found that their hopes of persuading the authority to take action have ended in disappointment.

Several years ago the Carmarthen Journal told readers that an investigation of the council's planning department by the Audit Office was about to be undertaken, and the office received quite a few letters from citizens outlining their grievances as a result.

The auditor replied to Cneifiwr's complaints about the handling of a major planning application with a brief letter written on what looked like recycled lavatory paper (top marks for economy). The letter said in a tone which mixed surprise with exasperation that the Audit Office had received a significant number of unsolicited letters complaining about aspects of the council's planning function, apparently in the belief that an investigation was about to be undertaken.

This was not the case, it added. The auditor was merely contemplating whether an investigation was warranted, and needless to say the conclusion was that despite the unsolicited letters from various victims and aggrieved citizens,  no action needed to be taken.

Interestingly, as Caebrwyn has discovered, the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales has taken a rather different view.

More recently, a couple of people felt moved to write to the WAO to question the council's decision to pump almost £1.5 million into the Towy Community Church's 10 pin bowling alley at a time when it was making cuts to all sorts of other services, including libraries, school music schemes, support for the Welsh language, museums, road maintenance, etc.

The responses came, it turned out, from the appointed auditor for Carmarthenshire rather than the WAO itself, and carried with them the unmistakable whiff of County Hall where a ghost writer appeared to have been at work.

The auditor told the residents that the Council has "the power to do anything which it considers is likely to achieve the promotion or the economic well-being, the social well-being and the environmental well-being of its area", wording taken from the Local Government Act 2000.

Further, all decisions had been correctly made at the appropriate level, and the grants awarded by the council "will have met" the prescribed requirements for each scheme, they were told.

The "will have met" bit is interesting because it suggests that the auditor was either assuming that this was the case or had been told by the council's officers that that was so.

In other words, the auditor took the council's word that everything was OK and above board.

What about the council's duty to ensure that public funds were not being wasted? Well, the disposal of an asset which had been "independently valued" at £750,000 (although the book value was £835,000) fell within the threshold of the General Disposal Consent of £2 million which meant that the Council was able to avoid the legal requirement that it disposes of any land at best consideration. So it was OK to use £835,000 of public money to give to a small church (strictly speaking it is a 99-year lease at a peppercorn rent, but the council treated it as a disposal) because in the council's view it is likely to achieve the promotion or the economic, etc. well-being of its area.

Ironically at about the time the councillors voted to approve the latest funding package for the church, the council was also finalising its budget proposals and a huge swathe of cuts to all sorts of services.

Whenever the council is challenged about hikes in charges in leisure centres, the closure of libraries, public lavatories, cuts in funding for Mentrau Iaith, etc., it always responds by telling us that it has no statutory duty to provide any of these services.

Of course it has no statutory duty to ensure that Carmarthen has a 10 pin bowling alley either.

Next up was Caebrwyn who had previously been assured that the auditor would be monitoring the costs of the libel case between her and the Chief Executive.

You can read about the response she received here, but it was made clear to her that the appointed auditor was not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, and that any information he divulged would be at his discretion.

The whole point of having external auditors of local government is surely (a) that they are independent, and (b) that they perform their duties in a transparent and open way in order to assure local people that their councils are both acting within the law and using public money efficiently and effectively.

The locally appointed auditor system certainly fails the second of those two tests, and there is reason to wonder in the case of some locally appointed auditors just how independent they really are from the local authorities they are supposed to be monitoring.

Just as the Towy Church project rests on that catch-all clause from the Local Government Act 2000 (promoting the economic well-being, etc.), so the Caebrwyn libel case appears to rest on an equivalent clause from the Local Government Act 1972 which says that,

a local authority shall have power to do any thing (whether or not involving the expenditure, borrowing or lending of money or the acquisition or disposal of any property or rights) which is calculated to facilitate, or is conducive or incidental to, the discharge of any of their functions.

The implication here is that Caebrwyn's blog is somehow preventing the council from discharging its functions, although as the decision by the Executive Board was subject to a public interest exemption, we can only speculate as to how her blogposts are jamming up the wheels of local government.

The libel case itself has been grinding slowly along for over 6 months now, and it will be almost another 6 months before the case goes to court. Obviously, the lawyers' meters are ticking away, and costs at this early stage are already known to be in excess of £60,000 before anything much has happened. By the time the case has been heard and any damages awarded, the sums involved could well be astronomical.

A timely illustration of what this could mean comes from a recent libel trial involving a student who sued two national newspapers for making false claims about his participation in demonstrations against education spending cuts. The trial ran for just 5 days, and the judge issued an order for the two newspapers to make an interim payment of £450,000 to meet the claimant's baseline legal costs. The final figure is likely to be higher and excludes damages awarded to the claimant, Luke Cooper. A summary can be found here.

The council will be insured in the case of its defence of Caebrwyn's claim, but it is almost certainly not covered for the costs incurred in its counter-claim. If the council loses, those costs will come directly from public funds, and an interesting question in this regard will be how the council's costs are apportioned, especially since the same counsel is conducting both the defence and the counter-claim. We can be sure that the council's insurers will be keeping an eagle eye on their exposure.

The question is whether the external auditor is paying as much attention to the taxpayers' exposure as the insurers are to their likely share, and what if anything he might do to protect us.

Nothing that the auditor has done in recent years can give us much comfort on either score, and as Caebrwyn has discovered, the auditor does not have to tell us anything because he is beyond the reach of the Freedom of Information Act.

The case law on which the County Council is basing its counter-claim relates to a libel case involving Bedford Borough Council and a Conservative Party election agent. There the district auditor decided to intervene after the libel case had been settled to object to the use of public funds in pursuit of a libel claim, and that extremely belated response by the auditor played a significant part in the judge's decision to dismiss the auditor's claims.

Will Carmarthenshire's appointed auditor learn from the Bedford case and intervene while time is on his side? Will he warn the Council against pursuing its counterclaim and the risk of a huge financial hit? Will he seek to impose any limits on the Council?

Well, we can but live in hope.

There is a draft Audit Office (Wales) Bill waiting to go before the Welsh Assembly which might just tackle this mess by making the WAO directly responsible for local government, but by the time that hits the statute books, the dust will have settled on the libel case.

Perhaps the biggest lesson is that all of these desperate appeals to ombudsmen and auditors would not be necessary if our elected councillors found the courage to say no a little more often and remembered that every pound given to the Llanelli Scarlets, Towy Community Church, the chief executive's libel fund and all of the other worthy causes means a pound less for our existing museums, leisure centres, school music programmes, support for the Welsh language in the community, etc.

Sunday 24 June 2012

Forza Italia

One of the journalists on the South Wales Evening Post has decided to go to the trouble of telling us why he will be supporting England in tonight's match against Italy.

Here is a good reason to support Italy.

A few days before the competition kicked off, the Italian team, which like its English rivals is based in Krakow, paid a visit to the former extermination camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, just a short drive away. Like all other visitors, they were given a tour and paid their respects.

A couple of days later it was England's turn. Unlike the Italians, England could only spare its coach and six of its players. And unlike the Italians, it was decided that the English team could not possibly just turn up as ordinary visitors and mingle with the public, so the camp was closed and they were given a private tour.

Quite possibly this was done for the usual British "security reasons", although in truth most of the other major European teams have rather more star quality and famous names. And anyway, who was going to attack or otherwise pester a small group of relatively obscure, overpaid and overrated footballers on a visit to Auschwitz?

The incident tells us something about John Bull in this year of the Jubilympics, and it explains why we shall be eating pasta tonight in Casa Cneifiwr.

Pob lwc i'r Eidal!

Monday 18 June 2012

Services to the Community

Whatever your views about David Lloyd George, no other Welshman in history had more impact on the world stage, and his impact on our daily lives (the old age pension and National Insurance, for example) and the British political scene can still be felt today.

In 1909 he introduced his "People's Budget" and took on the entrenched power and privilege of the hereditary House of Lords, by some margin the biggest constitutional crisis in Britain in the last 100 years.

Of course, the boy from Llanystumdwy went slightly off the rails in the later stages of his career, and there are some uncanny parallels with the British political scene today, including his relationship with the press barons and a shabby coalition with the Tories.

Having faced down the hereditary peers, Lloyd George went on to subvert the honours system by selling peerages, knighthoods and just about every other bauble in the cupboard on an industrial scale. Tony Blair, whose own career is a pale imitation of Lloyd George's in many other respects, was of course cleared of selling peerages rather more recently.

A century on from Lloyd George we still have hereditary peers, and he would have no difficulty recognising the rest of the honours system. One small concession to modern sensibilities is that ordinary members of the public may now nominate people for honours, but the bulk of those receiving awards are the same old mix of superannuated politicians, civil servants and other establishment hangers-on.

Cneifiwr was scrutinising the Queen's Birthday Honours list the other day to see if either he or Caebrwyn had been recognised for services to blogging when up popped a familiar name under the OBEs: David Gilbert, Director of Regeneration, Carmarthenshire County Council, for services in the fields of Regeneration and Skills.

This brings the council's tally of officers, members and commanders of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire to at least four. Meryl herself is a rather humble MBE, the lowest of the rungs in the pecking order, as is Labour's Terry Davies. Mr Gilbert, who can regularly be seen glaring fiercely at councillors and the public from his seat on the officers' podium in County Hall, can now look down on Meryl and Terry with his OBE, while looking down on us all as a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire is Chief Executive Mark James.

Lloyd George's battle in 1909 and his subsequent flogging of honours may have tarnished and discredited the system in many people's eyes, but clearly the self-perpetuating cliques which run our local government are still in love with this Ruritanian nonsense.

So congratulations to Mr Gilbert, who takes home £147,637 a year. Sadly, after all his years of regeneration, Carmarthenshire remains one of the poorest parts of Europe, and many of his regeneration projects will be a drain on hard-pressed council taxpayers for decades to come.

While it is unlikely that there was a flood of nominations from the public, various developers, consultants and rugby bosses were no doubt on hand to endorse the award with rather more enthusiasm and gratitude.

As the council gears up for more school closures, preposterous and unsustainable developments and privatisation of services, it is good to know that services to the community are recognised by the Establishment. Just a pity that it's the Range Rover driving community.

Thursday 14 June 2012

Kremlin on the Towy gives itself new powers - Updated

Update: Cneifiwr was unable to go to the meeting where the changes to constitution were discussed, but thanks to Caebrwyn for reporting on it here. In the end the proposal to abolish the right for school transport appeals to be heard by councillors was rejected. Despite the best efforts of the excellent Cllr David Jenkins and Cllr Siân Caiach, the rest of the changes were bulldozed through.


Carmarthenshire County Council met yesterday to approve yet another raft of changes to its constitution. This blog has pointed out on several previous occasions how over the years the council has hacked away at the rules which govern its conduct to remove transparency, reduce democratic accountability to vanishing point and abolish rights of ordinary citizens to a fair hearing.

Some of the changes made in recent years have verged on paranoia. For example, it was found necessary to change the constitution a couple of years ago because one individual had exercised his right to ask the council a question (about food sourcing). The problem was that he lived in a neighbouring county. Clearly that outrageous abuse had to be stopped, and so it was.

The latest set of proposals is long and complex, but here are just a few tasters:

  • Parents who wish to appeal decisions relating to school transport will lose the right for their appeal to be heard by elected councillors. Appeals will in future be heard by officers of the council only (i.e. the people responsible for making the decision which is being appealed).
  • Rulings made by the chair of the council on the application of the Constitution or the proceedings of council meetings may not be challenged. No matter how daft or wrong.
  • More powers to appoint representatives to external bodies will be delegated by councillors to the Executive Board.
  • Members of Scrutiny Committees may request that members of the ruling Executive Board attend their meetings and "assist them". The requirement for members of the Executive to answer questions at such meetings has been dropped.
  • The right of scrutiny committees to call extraordinary meetings either by a decision of the chair or by means of a majority vote is abolished; henceforth, the Chief Executive will have to approve such meetings.
  • Meetings of the full council, committees and the Executive Board will be open to the public and press, subject to the usual restrictions (exempt information). Executive Board Decision Meetings (i.e. not the public rubber-stamping sessions) will however be closed to public and press.
  • The rights of scrutiny committees to propose amendments to the Executive Board and provide advice to the Executive Board on major issues before final decisions are made are also curtailed. In future they may only "contribute" to policy development, etc.
Some other sections of this document have undergone extensive re-drafting, in particular the sections dealing with calling in (i.e. challenging) decisions made by the Executive Board, but the end result is the same. The effect is reminiscent of the sort of fake questionnaire you find on the internet, where no matter what answer you give to a question, the outcome is always the same. Here's how call-ins by scrutiny committees of Executive decisions work:

Scrutiny committees will retain the right to call-in decisions made by the ruling executive if a majority of members votes to call a decision in. The call-in request then has to leap through a number of hoops before it will be considered, and may be vetoed by the Monitoring Officer. If the request somehow manages to survive that process, the committee will be given cooling-off time to reconsider its call-in. They may, possibly under pressure from the whips, realise the error of their ways and drop their call-in. But if all else fails, they may refer the request for a decision to be reconsidered back to the Executive Board. The Executive Board may (racing certainty: will) decide that its decision was correct and reject the call-in. No further call-in is then allowed.

Kafka would love that.

There are myriads of other proposed changes, some of which are required because of changes in government legislation. Others are home-made in Carmarthen, and it may well be that buried away deep in the verbiage there are more nasty land-mines.

The overall drift of the changes is to reduce the powers of elected councillors still further, to reduce the need for the Executive and officers to consult with elected councillors and to curtail both the number and the powers of the scrutiny committees.

All of this vast patchwork quilt of changes was "considered" and approved in rather less time than it would take anyone to read them.

It's what Vladimir Putin calls "managed democracy".

Wednesday 13 June 2012

Demon bloggers - when Evangelicals attack (1)

Back in December 2011, Carmarthenshire County Council voted to approve a loan of £270,000 at 3% to Towy Community Church for its bowling alley project, bringing the total value of the council's package of grants, loans, peppercorn leases, etc. to more than £1.4 million so far.

In the run-up to the meeting, Cneifiwr and Caebrwyn raised a lot of questions about this use of public money, the ability of this very small evangelical church to manage a project on this scale and the many and glaring inconsistencies in statements put out by the church and the council. They also pointed out that the church's website was advertising a partnership with a highly controversial American organisation called Mercy Ministries (links since removed).

Needless to say, this really rattled the Evangelical Alliance which took a first swipe against the bloggers and press here at the end of 2011.

The author of the piece, Jim Stewart, makes three main points. First he comes to the rescue of Mercy Ministries and tries to justify the church's link to that organisation.

As you can see, he gets himself into a bit of a tangle here. True, Towy Community Church had talked about a partnership with Mercy Ministries, he says, and one of the Carmarthen flock had taken a gap year with Mercy Ministries. True, there had been an unfortunate financial scandal in Australia where Mercy Ministries had had to close its local branch (actually the scandal was rather more than just financial; it included allegations of false imprisonment, exorcism and abuse of young women, but Mr Stewart clearly felt that that sort of lurid detail was unnecessary).

He goes on to mention the American founder of Mercy Ministries and her YouTube talks about "deliverance" which he defines as an act of setting free or rescue. From what? Jim Stewart does not elaborate, but we are talking about deliverance from demons and demonic possession.

The problem with these terms is that we are in a world of pseudo-science, and they are very elastic. What is clear is that quite a few of the troubled young women who have experienced the "deliverance" he is talking about emerge from it even more traumatised and troubled. You can read a very well written account about Mercy Ministries' UK operations here. Interestingly, the piece mentions a group called the Abundant Life Church which was also attended by Towy Community Church's gap year student.

Mr Stewart also argues that religious groups seeking funding from the Lottery, councils, etc. should be judged solely on whether they have complied with the terms and conditions of the loans and grants they have received, rather than on religious (and we might add), ethical and political grounds.

That would be very good news for all sorts of extremist religious groups, such as the virulently homophobic Christian Voice. The Klu Klux Klan, which sees itself as Christian, might want to consider opening up a youth training camp in Carmarthenshire on that basis.

Finally, Mr Stewart claims that it was only because of the activity of the bloggers that Carmarthenshire County Council had to meet in full session to debate the loan. It would be flattering to think that was true, but the reality was that the decision had to go back to the full council, partly because of the size of the loan, and partly because the funding package agreed by the councillors in closed session a few months previously turned out to be based on rather wishful thinking.

This being Carmarthenshire, a lot of spin was deployed to persuade councillors to sign on the dotted line. They were told, for example, that giving the Johnstown creamery site to the church for 99 years would save the council money because it would no longer have to pay business rates. They were also told that the church no longer needed to borrow as much from the banks.

The truth was that the church's bankers had got slightly cold feet, and were no longer willing to lend as much, and unverified claims were made about a massive increase in the church's own contribution. The bottom line was that bank borrowings were being reduced because the council had agreed to stump up a heavily subsidised loan.

Jim Stewart's musings were rather mild compared with our next piece.

"Faith-ignorant smear campaign won't undermine us"  yells a woman called Jenny Taylor in a rant on a site called Lapidomedia (here) in April of this year.

Taylor goes to town in a piece which has a shameful disregard for the truth and the facts:
  • The Council has provided £550,000 of funding towards the project, she says. The true figure is in excess of £1.4 million.
  • Wales on Sunday had linked the Carmarthen church to a non-existent Australian charity, she screams. The reason why the Australian charity was non-existent was because it had been closed down in the wake of revelations in the Sydney Morning Herald.
  • Despite having told us that the Australian charity was non-existent, she then goes on to argue that, apart from the unfortunate coincidence of the name, Aussie Mercy Ministries and Mercy Ministries UK had nothing in common. Just as Microsoft Australia and Microsoft UK are not linked in any way, presumably.
Apart from the evil bloggers, Taylor is very, very cross with other satanic spawn, including MP Jonathan Edwards, Cllr Siân Caiach, the BBC, the Western Mail and Unison, the union which represents many council employees.

They are all out to get the Christians, she rages, and they are all faith-ignorant, before adding that the Prime Minister, Call-Me-Dave Cameron, thinks that Mercy Ministries is wonderful because of what it is doing for the Big Society.

And this is where the politicians come in, as we shall see in the next installment.

Demon Bloggers - When Evangelicals Attack (2)

Attacks from the Evangelical Alliance and Lapido Media were to be expected, but a rather more shocking onslaught came from the House of Commons, where an official all-party group calling itself Christians in Parliament produced a preliminary report in February entitled "Clearing the Ground" on the freedom of Christians in the UK.

The committee is made up of 3 Tory MPs, 2 Tory peers, one Lib-Dem peer and 2 Labour MPs, and  it set itself the task of deciding whether Christians are being marginalised in UK society. Given the membership of the committee, this was akin to asking a group of vegetarians to write a report to decide whether eating meat is good or bad.

Various people were called to give evidence, and the report directs those wishing to see the evidence to the official website of the Evangelical Alliance. Impartial and objective are not the first words to spring to mind, then.

Members of the committee include Gary Streeter MP (Con), Fiona Bruce MP (Con), David Burrows MP (Con), Gary Shuker MP (Lab) and Jim Dobbin MP (Lab). We need not spend much time on this assortment, except for a few snippets to give readers a flavour.
  • Gary Streeter has campaigned to have an Advertising Standards Authority ban on faith healing advertising lifted. He has demanded that the authority produce proof that healing through prayer does not work. Like his fellow MP David Burrowes, he uses CARE (Christian Action Research Education) interns.
  • Fiona Bruce says she is opposed to same-sex marriage "as a mother". Well, Fiona, the author of this blog thinks that allowing people of the same sex to marry is a good thing, "as a father".
  • David Burrowes has close links with CARE, and has an intern paid for by that organisation which campaigns and lobbies on a range of issues, including teaching creationism in schools and opposition to gay marriage and abortion.
  • Gary Shuker also thinks that adverts which claim prayer can heal should be allowed.
  • Jim Dobbin is opposed to gay marriage.
The committee's report includes the following piece about the Towy Community Church story:

Towy Community Church in Wales is working with the local council to develop a community
centre with a bowling alley and is due to receive a loan from the council to help fund this
development. Due to malicious stories on a blog, public pressure was placed on the council to
block the loan. It emerged that the church had made small donations to an American Christian
organisation that offers support for women with life-controlling issues – which include sexuality
issues. The publicity necessitated a full meeting of Carmarthen Council, who after investigation
re-stated their commitment to the church and the project. However, despite the outcome, the affair
reflects a widespread ignorance of what a Christian church is and does.

Eight lines, and in every line a serious error or evasion:

  • Notice that only a loan for an unspecified amount is mentioned.
  • Notice how Mercy Ministries is not mentioned by name, and the issue is spun to make it sound as though critics of the organisation are opposed to helping women.
  • The local authority involved was of course Carmarthenshire County Council, not Carmarthen Council.
  • The meeting was held to approve the loan because the council's previous funding package turned out to be inadequate. It had nothing to do with the bloggers or negative publicity.
  • The meeting did not investigate anything - there was no mention at all of the Mercy Ministries scandal.
Sad also to see that legitimate questioning and debate is described as "malicious".

What is shocking is that this is a parliamentary report which will be used to support changes in legislation and government policy. If the quality of evidence in other cases mentioned in the report is as unreliable as this, we all have cause to be concerned.

I wonder what Mrs Morgan, my old Sunday school teacher, would think. She always said that telling the truth was a Christian virtue.

Saturday 9 June 2012

Empty gestures - Carmarthenshire's new council starts as it means to go on

Carwyn Jones came in for a lot of criticism for his very leisurely approach to forming a new administration after the Assembly elections in May last year; it was not until towards the end of September that he got around to announcing a programme for his government, and the programme itself was devoid of specific targets.

The new Labour-Independent administration in Carmarthenshire seems to have decided to follow Carwyn's lethargic lead, and has so far managed only to appoint an Executive Board and the various committees and vote on a couple of discretionary allowances.

The decision on allowances has not got the new council off to a good start, as it manages to combine empty gesture politics with a new policy that undermines the new leadership's claims to want to help rural areas of the county.

Travel allowances for duties carried out by councillors in their wards have been abolished, as has the right to claim for postage and telephone costs relating to councillors' duties.

If you are a councillor in an urban area, this will make little difference, but for those who represent rural areas with countless scattered farms and houses, often without access to the Internet, you will now be expected to pay out of your own pocket all thanks to a proposal made by Councillor Pam Palmer, who has been given the job of looking after rural communities on the governing Executive Board.

Ironic, isn't it?

If your councillor is both rich and public spirited enough to fork out of their own funds, this will not matter, but it raises new barriers to deter people who are not independently wealthy from becoming councillors. If you are unlucky enough to have a rich but mean councillor, lower your expectations now.

Needless to say, this point escaped our new leader, Kevin Madge, who went on to praise a new statutory carers' allowance for councillors.

The new allowance is designed to help councillors meet the cost of providing care for children and other dependents while they carry out their duties. Kev said,

“If we want people from all walks of life to become councillors, then we have got to help them to be here and to carry out their duties.”

Looking round the chamber it is unlikely that many (or any) will be making claims for childcare, although perhaps some of the elderly male members may now reveal that they have fathered flocks of love-children with nubile women young enough to be their great-granddaughters.

Rather more likely, we will find that these new allowances go towards caring for the elderly spouses of councillors who have so far managed perfectly well without them.

Plus ca change.

Wednesday 6 June 2012

The Queen and the County Council Elections - oh, and the Torch

Just over a week ago the National Assembly held a special 'debate' to congratulate the Queen on her Diamond Jubilee. The only slight frisson of excitement about this otherwise dull event was speculation about how the Plaid leader, Leanne Wood, would handle it.

Leanne has never made any secret of her views, and would like to see the monarchy in Wales replaced one day by an elected head of state.

In the event, she gave a carefully balanced speech, as you can see from this Western Mail piece here.

Rather odder is a claim buried deep in the article that "some in Plaid" believed that Leanne's non-attendance at a Jubilee service held in Llandaff Cathedral had cost Plaid Cymru seats in the Carmarthenshire county council elections.

The unexpected reference to Carmarthenshire in the middle of the report becomes more bizarre the more you think about it.

In the county council elections Plaid performed extremely well in Carmarthen, held its ground in the Amman Valley and took a drubbing only in the notoriously Royalist stronghold of Llanelli (well, it still has a Prince Philip Hospital, doesn't it?).

Local press coverage of the elections could be described as patchy at best, but nowhere was there any mention of the future of the monarchy being a question which had voters challenging candidates. No letters appeared in the Llanelli Star, Carmarthen Journal or any other title accusing Peter Hughes Griffiths of wanting to send the Windsors packing. Nowhere on Twitter or Facebook was there any debate about the monarchy in the context of the council elections.

Since the National Assembly debate, the concerned monarchist citizens of Carmarthenshire have had every opportunity to put up bunting and portraits of the Windsors and hold street parties. The BBC did its best over four days to whip Wales into a frenzy, and Tesco and other big corporates joined in by decking out their stores to make them look like BNP conventions.

As the tumbleweed blew down the empty streets of the towns and villages of Carmarthenshire, the Western Mail's monarchists kept a very low profile. There was no dancing in the streets, and bunting salesmen had a very lean time of it.

In Cneifiwr's neck of the woods only a couple of villages over the border in Ceredigion showed any signs of making any effort. Llechryd had a Union Jack draped under the village sign, and the village hall was decked out in red, white and blue bunting (not a single Red Dragon). In Rhydlewis the county's "What's On" guide listed no fewer than 5 Jubilee events. Perhaps that is part of the lingering legacy of Caradoc Evans.

Otherwise a visiting Martian would have not spotted any difference from any other wet weekend.

The Western Mail snippet remains a mystery, and no doubt it will be tripping up PhD students 100 years from now as they take their cue from it and research the Great Carmarthenshire Republican Row of 2012.

While we are on the subject of mysteries, a few words on the Olympic Torch Relay which recently passed through Cardigan.

Cneifiwr's youngest wanted to go and watch, and not wanting to deprive him for the sake of political principle, Dad duly obliged, albeit with gritted teeth.

The relay started near the Livestock Market, crossed the river, went up the High Street and ended at what is known as the 'Tesco Junction'. Cneifiwr and Junior opted for the Tesco end, and had no problems parking or finding a roadside place. In fact only a short stretch down around the Catholic Church and Rugby Club appeared to have attracted crowds.

Lots of police vans turned up, and after a short while a squadron of police motorcycles came past. Half of the riders were wearing Metropolitan Police jackets.

The Dyfed Powys boys were very friendly, and a couple of the riders stopped to chat with some of the onlookers. A few feet down from Cneifiwr was a very ancient Mam-gu waving her Draig Goch at the cops. The Welsh boys waved back, and she started calling out 'Helo, Shwmae - Shwd ŷch chi?'

The boys from the Met stared back, assessing the terrorist threat.

Eventually a convoy of shiny buses and cars drove past, including a Coca Cola lorry and a Lloyds Bank bus.
The Olympic bus had a huge screen built into the side, showing what seemed to be a cartoon, and a Cockney voice on a loud haler tried to incite the sparse crowd to cheer.

More police outriders and men in grey shorts and shirts surrounded the 'runner', an elderly and rather large lady who staggered and tottered up the gentle hill.

"Stand back! Stand back!" we were ordered, and the whole thing came to a halt.

By this time a small crowd had gathered, and the security men took up position, hands over their genitals like footballers defending a penalty, as the flame was transferred to a small lantern to go back on the bus.

This strange ceremony took about 5 minutes, and one of the security types was holding a spare torch that nobody was allowed to touch.

With that, the lantern disappeared onto the bus, followed by the officials. The door closed and the convoy roared off.

The whole event had lasted about 20 minutes.

Perhaps there is a sad sub-species of trainspotter specialising in police vehicles, in which case, they would have been thrilled. As for the rest of us, Cneifiwr Junior summed it up as he asked, "Was that it?"

Friday 1 June 2012

Botanic Garden "not financially sustainable"

Back in January of this year Cneifiwr took a look at the tortured financial history of the National Botanical Gardens at Llanarthne (here). What emerged was the story of a venture sold to the public as a viable commercial operation in 2000, but where hardly a year has passed since 2004 without a fresh bailout or rescue. And every time there is a bailout, we are told that the future is looking bright; new plans have been put in place, and more visitors will show up.

In March the Carmarthen Journal went to town with a massive splurge on the gardens, spread across three separate articles, including this one. Along with the daffs and the spring bulbs, optimism had returned:

Staff at the National Botanic Garden of Wales are looking to have a better second decade.

The garden needed rescuing within a few years of its opening, but bosses now feel those days are behind them and that more realistic expectations can give them a base from which to develop the garden over the next 10 years.

Visitor numbers were again set to rise (here), and everything in the garden was looking lovely.

Roll on a couple of months, and the same journalist now tells us that Pricewaterhouse Coopers has concluded in a report that, "The National Botanic Garden of Wales not financially sustainable without external funding. This position will not change in the foreseeable future".

Whereas the experts once confidently told us that the gardens would be self-sustaining, the preferred argument over the last few years has been that other major botanic gardens also need subsidies to survive, and they point to Kew and Edinburgh as examples. Kew Gardens date back to the middle of the 18th century, while Edinburgh's Royal Botanic Gardens can trace their history to 1670.

The difference is, of course, that neither Kew nor Edinburgh were sold to us as great investments, and both are in major population centres.

The other argument which is always trotted out is that the gardens are "estimated" to bring millions of pounds into the county, although nobody has been rash enough to put a figure on that. The truth is, of course, that most visitors will visit the gardens for a few hours and then head off out of the county. Anyone desperate to empty their wallets and purses locally will be hard put to find anywhere to spend their cash, bearing in mind that the gardens are miles from the nearest towns.

Typically, the PwC report had to be obtained through a Freedom of Information request. Although it has been obvious for years that the garden could never become a self-sustaining commercial operation, the Great and the Good who run it persist in treating the public like idiots with claims that a corner has been turned, and that next year, or perhaps the year after, everything will come right.

The politicians, including of course the leaders of our county council, are no better as they peddle patently daft claims about how much the gardens contribute to the county's economy.

What the gardens at Llanarthne have in common with Parc y Scarlets, Garnant Golf Club and other Carmarthenshire regeneration projects (including the evangelical bowling alley) is that they are set to be a burden on the county for years to come, swallowing resources which could be spent on schools, social care and other bread and butter services.

All of these projects were launched on the back of completely unrealistic business plans, and all of the key decisions have been taken behind closed doors, with the public being fed fairy tales. Nobody has ever been held to account for the failures, and given the supine attitude of the Wales Audit Office, there is no likelihood of any serious investigation into any of these costly and disastrous decisions.

Time for the council to call a halt to the bowling alley project before that becomes another permanent drain on our limited resources.