Sunday 30 June 2013

Gas guzzlers

It's been a while since this blog took a look at the expenses claims of Carmarthenshire's county councillors, and judging from some of the recent figures the council is still churning out some very suspect data. Has Tom Theophilus (Independent) really clocked up £1,127.70 in travel expenses since April 2013?

In a large number of cases, copies of the expense forms which are supposed to accompany the figures are also missing.

The figures for councillor salaries are interesting. Carmarthenshire has 74 councillors, and collectively they cost us £759,000 in basic salary in 2012-13. Nothing very surprising about that, perhaps, but senior salaries (i.e. members of the Executive Board, chairs of committees, etc.) cost us an eye watering £431,000 on top of that.

2012-13 was an unusual year, partly because of the council elections and partly because there were very few meetings for four of the months covered by the period. Despite that, travel expenses for the year totalled £43,361, which was slightly up on the previous year (£42,300).

A trawl through the database shows huge variations in claims, from zero to more than £2,500, with ten councillors (13% of the total) accounting for 36% of total claims.

Here are the top five:

1.       Jane Tremlett (Ind)
2.       Tom Theophilus (Ind)
3.       Colin Evans (Lab)
4.       Anthony Jones (Lab)
5.       Ivor Jackson (Ind)

That other Independent stalwart, Dai 'Trelech' Thomas, was not far behind at £1,082.

Together Labour and the Independents accounted for 8 out of the 10 top claimers.

Saturday 29 June 2013


Filming council meetings is once again back in the news, this time in England where a bizarre episode took place this week at a meeting of Huntingdonshire District Council when Richard Taylor, armed with a supportive tweet from Eric Pickles, insisted on his right to film a council meeting. Last week the police were called to a meeting of Bexley Council in London when a man tried to audio record proceedings.

The nub of the problem in England is that while Eric Pickles has issued guidance telling councils to open up and allow members of the public to film or record meetings, a good many councils have constitutions which either ban filming and recording, or allow it only by prior agreement or the permission of the chair.

Although the council's constitution and standing orders in Carmarthenshire are completely silent on filming and recording, the authority insists that filming and recording by anyone other than the council itself are prohibited.

Live streaming of meetings of the full council began two months ago as part of a pilot, and although a review is a little early, some trends are beginning to emerge.

One of the stock arguments deployed by opponents of filming and transparency in general is that filming meetings will encourage elected members to act up in front of the cameras.

Judging from the last two meetings, there is no evidence to back that up. The Independents, with a few ghastly exceptions, remain as dumbstruck as they have ever been. Few of the Labour councillors have anything to say for themselves either, and leave most of the talking to Kev. Perhaps the only noticeable change in that quarter is that Cllr Colin Evans (Lab, Pontaman), who unlike his neighbour and leader can actually form a coherent sentence, appears to have gone camera shy.

The first meeting to be filmed was the AGM, which is strictly for lovers of municipal pomp and insomniacs only.

The second meeting was a rather more lively affair, not to say car crash, but it was no different in style or substance to any of the dire meetings which punctuated the second half of 2012. What we got at the last meeting was Carmarthenshire County Council warts and all, the only difference being that this time it was caught on camera.

There were a couple of worrying signs of what may lay ahead when Cllr Callum Higgins (Lab) complained that Plaid had tabled a motion (about planning and the Welsh language) which he felt should have been discussed behind closed doors. Cllr Bill Thomas (Lab) was also told that his complaint about being covertly filmed by council officers would be dealt with outside the chamber (i.e. off camera).

Dim o flaen y plant. Pas devant les enfants. Not in front of the children.

Another stock argument trotted out by the anti-transparency brigade is that allowing the public to film or record meetings would enable people to quote councillors or officers out of context. As far as we know, nobody has so far produced any examples of where this has happened, and the reality is that some denizens of County Hall have rather more to fear from being quoted accurately in context.

A consequence of broadcasting meetings over the Internet is that the public gallery, rarely populated by more than a handful of anoraks, was apparently completely empty in June, and it is likely to stay that way.

Not only can the public watch from the comfort of their own homes when they like, but they can also click on the relevant agenda items to see what is being discussed.

Visitors to the public gallery, on the other hand, are still required to sign in despite only having access to the public gallery (not a requirement until the #daftarrest incident), and have to sit on rock hard benches without the benefit of copies of the agenda, have to endure a pervasive and unpleasant smell and have a restricted view of the chamber.

Filming of the important committees and scrutiny committees is still a long way off. Because all of the infrastructure is in place, it should be possible to broadcast those proceedings at very little additional cost.
Broadcasting committee meetings would also kill off demands for the public to be allowed to film and record for themselves because only hardcore masochists would want to head for the public gallery.

Ironically the one organ of the council which is least worth recording is the all powerful Executive Board, whose public meetings are little more than a formality with added PR. All important discussions and decisions are taken behind closed doors.

Streaming of meetings of the full council as a pilot was a step in the right direction, but we still have a lot further to go, and it is not at all clear what will happen at the end of the pilot. There are certainly those who would like to see the pilot lapse and be given a quiet funeral.

The campaign to get filming put on a permanent footing and to have it extended to the committees early next year needs to begin building now.

Thursday 27 June 2013

Siarter Sir Gâr

Aeth cynrychiolwyr Cymdeithas yr Iaith i Gaerfyrddin ddoe i gwrdd ag arweinyddiaeth y Cyngor am y tro cyntaf ers i Sir Gaerfyddin gael ei hailsefydlu ym 1996. Cyflwynodd Ffred Ffransis a Sioned Elin Siarter Sir Gâr i Kevin Madge (Llaf) a Mair Stephens (Annibynnol).

Yn ôl y sôn, dywedodd Kev bod "gwrthdaro wedi bod yn y gorffennol", ond fod "y drws nawr ar agor ar gyfer deialog gyson". Gwrthdaro?

Mae wythnos yn gyfnod hir mewn gwleidyddiaeth, medden nhw, ac felly mae'n debyg bod penderfyniad Llafur a'r Annibynwyr i wrthod cynnig Alun Lenny am TAN20 newydd ddwy wythnos yn ôl, a holl hynt a helynt Penybanc yn ddiweddar yn perthyn i'r Canol Oesoedd.

Deryn doeth a rhywun dw i'n ei edmygu yn fawr iawn yw Ffred Ffransis. Cawn ni weld, felly, beth sy'n mynd i ddigwydd i'r wydd dan ofal y cadno.

"Mae'n amser i roi diwedd ar wrthdaro, yr hen wydd"

Farming news

A case brought by Carmarthenshire County Council against one of its councillors, Sian Caiach, has ended with the councillor being ordered to pay £11,365 in costs and fines relating to her flock of sheep.

The charges against Cllr Caiach were that some bones were found in one of her fields, that some of the sheep were suffering from fly strike and that one animal was lame.

The council originally brought 10 separate charges against Cllr Caiach, but agreed to drop 7 of them if she agreed to plead to three of the more minor counts.

For her part, Cllr Caiach is adamant that there was insufficient evidence to make the other 7 charges stick, but that she was strongly advised to plead to the three other charges and forgo an appeal because of the  prospect of rapidly escalating and massive costs. Because she was not eligible for legal aid, Cllr Caiach will have to meet all of the costs out of her own pocket.

In bringing 10 charges against her, the council engaged the services of a top flight legal team and an expert witness who produced a report at a cost of more than £8,000.

The case has been reported extensively in the local press, including the verdict under the slightly odd  headline Court orders Llanelli mum to pay out £11k in sheep carcass case.

Anyone who reads the local press will have seen reporting of stories of prosecutions of farmers for neglect and cruelty from time to time. A quick trawl through the archives of Welsh local papers suggests that almost invariably these involve gross neglect or cruelty on an altogether different scale, with reports of numbers of carcasses strewn across fields or lying in sheds, starving horses and cattle and slow, lingering deaths.

That was not the case here.

It is also not the case that all serious cases are prosecuted. Cneifiwr knows of one case in Carmarthenshire of appalling neglect and cruelty on a local farm which featured on Y Byd ar Bedwar. No action appears to have been taken.

Fly strike is a major problem for sheep farmers, and it is particularly bad in wet years such as 2012. Farmers are advised to check their flocks on a daily basis, and the expert witness used in Cllr Caiach's case appears to have gone further and recommended checks more than once a day.

Fly strike develops very quickly, and the problem for farmers is that it can be difficult to detect in its early stages without close examination of each animal, especially before shearing. There will be very few sheep farmers who escape fly strike, and while the official advice is good, for most Welsh  farmers it is hardly practical.

In the same way anyone who has walked across fields in this part of the world will have come across bones. Where they come from and how old they are is usually impossible to say.

A sheep which can appear to be healthy in the morning can be dead for no apparent reason hours later, and carcasses can be stripped bare by red kites, ravens, crows, foxes and badgers within a very short time. They are also no respecters of property boundaries, and bones from a dead animal can end up being scattered over a large area.

Cllr Caiach says that she does not know where the bones came from, and that all of her animals were accounted for. The expert witness nevertheless concluded from looking at photographs that a pinkish tinge suggested that the animal could have died fairly recently.

If fly strike and the presence in fields of old bones are to be used as a basis for prosecuting sheep farmers, the courts and lawyers will be kept very busy indeed. The Daily Telegraph painted a picture of what can happen to farmers when councils become heavy handed a couple of years ago (here).

The last couple of years have been difficult, to say the least, for this councillor who is one of the fiercest critics of the officer-led regime in County Hall.

  • Before the council elections last year she was placed under punitive "special measures" by the Chief Executive and forbidden to ask questions of any council officer other than the Chief Executive himself.
  • In July last year the Ombudsman for Public Services dismissed a long series of complaints and accusations made against her by the Chief Executive.
  • It recently came to light that an unknown senior officer in the council had ordered the councillor's e-mail account to be monitored.
 The offending flock of rare breed sheep has since been sold.

Tuesday 25 June 2013

An Open Letter to the Rt.Hon. Maria Miller MP

Update 26 June

For anyone who missed it, the UK Government announced today that it would maintain funding for S4C at £6.7 million until 2016. This was better than many people had feared, but of course that still means a cut in real terms. The BBC's contributions to the channel are also still set to decline.


Dear Secretary of State

You will probably agree that it is strange for a Secretary of State in London who represents Basingstoke in Parliament to be asked to make a decision about the future of S4C, and you will know from growing up in Bridgend that Wales often feels a very long way from London and the South East of England. Wales, the Welsh and the Welsh language probably look a little exotic from Westminster too.

One of the BBC's popular dramas is Waterloo Road, set in a secondary school somewhere in an English city. It deals with many of the problems which affect large inner-city schools, and in the most recent series one of the major plot lines involves plans to turn the school into an academy.

Here in Wales S4C has been running a popular drama series about a secondary school; it is called Gwaith Cartref. The school bears a striking resemblance to quite a few Welsh secondary schools, including perhaps Brynteg Comprehensive, and the series deals with social issues and the domestic dramas of some of the staff. There is no likelihood that Ysgol Bro Taf will become an academy because we don't have academies in Wales. Unlike the English series, Gwaith Cartref is also quite funny.

The point is, Minister, that Gwaith Cartref paints a picture of school life which is much more familiar to people in Wales. Perhaps you would enjoy the Welsh humour and understand the cultural references too.

Gwaith Cartref recently won an international prize for best drama, and other S4C programmes have met with similar success. In fact, there are lots of good programmes on S4C, and some that are truly excellent, despite the constraints the channel has to operate under.

You probably don't get much time to watch television, and it is unlikely that you will watch much S4C, even though you are responsible for it. That's a pity, because you are missing some good things.

S4C has its fair share of critics - who can name a public service broadcaster that doesn't? - but it works hard with limited resources to cram into a single channel content which is scattered across a dozen English-language channels, and the results would shame national broadcasters in many much larger countries.

Wales can be very proud of the creativity, vitality and talent which is displayed on its own television channel, and so can Britain as a whole for supporting a minority culture and setting an example to all those states which don't.

This year S4C received just £6.7 million in funding from your department. In terms of overall government spending that doesn't really register, does it? And as you know, the channel has lost 36% of its budget since the end of 2011, with further reductions in the pipeline.

Please resist pressure to cut still further, and please take a look for yourself.

Diolch yn fawr i chi, a chofion cynnes o Gymru.

Saturday 22 June 2013



Having listened to the recording again, it is clear that Cllr Callum Higgins inserted the words "need clarification and strengthening" before the rest of his amendment which referred the matter back to the Task and Finish Group.

The rest of this piece has been amended to reflect that, although the outcome was still to kick the matter into the long grass.

Nevertheless, the author of this blog apologises for the error in the original post.


 The Press Office in Carmarthen is no stranger to controversy, and this week it was back on form once again with what has to be one of the most misleading and dishonest press releases imaginable (see below). The subject was the debate at the June meeting of the council on the Welsh language and planning.

In its motion, Plaid called on the Welsh Government to substantially strengthen TAN20 (the planning guidelines which deal with the language) and to set up a statutory body to handle language impact assessments.

Labour responded with an "amendment" (see below for the texts of the motion and the amendment) which simply said that the whole issue should be left to a cross-party Task and Finish group.

Given that Carwyn Jones has asked for input from interested parties and that the Welsh Government is expected finally to set out its plans on the matter this autumn, the effect of the amended motion will be to rule out any participation by the County Council in the consultation process because the Task and Finish group will not report until early next year.

Carmarthenshire will not have a say on the future shape of planning policy as it affects the language.

You would never have guessed that from the press release which reads as follows (comments in red):

Carmarthenshire councillors have agreed that current guidance on the impact of planning and development on the Welsh language needs to be clarified and strengthened.

Councillors - debating the issue during Full Council - made reference to the First Minister’s recent call for views on the planning policies and guidelines relating to the Welsh language, which is known as TAN 20. [Yes they did, but they decided to ignore Carwyn Jones's request]

Members of a cross-party Task and Finish group, recently established to look at the Welsh language and Census, have been asked to include the matter in their deliberations.

Having fully investigated the issue, they will then recommend what representations should be made to the Welsh Government. [When it's too late]

Cllr Callum Higgins, who put forward an amendment to a notice of motion submitted to council by Cllr Alun Lenny, said during the meeting: “We are all in agreement that TAN 20 needs to be strengthened". [Not true either judging from some of the comments made by Cllr Higgins' supporters, such as Cllr Giles Morgan.]

The debate was in response to a motion tabled by Cllr Alun Lenny from the Plaid group, which read as follows:

This County Council believes that the present policies and guidelines relating to the Welsh language in the field of planning and development are seriously inadequate and calls on the Welsh Government to: i) substantially strengthen TAN20 (currently being revised) by making a development’s possible impact on the Welsh language a material planning consideration in individual applications; and ii) establish a statutory Agency to objectively assess the possible impact on the Welsh language in individual planning applications in order to advise Local Planning Authorities and make recommendations, if necessary.

After the introductory speeches, Callum Higgins (Lab) rose to introduce an amendment to insert the following words after "planning and development":

 "need clarification and strengthening. The Council asks the recently established cross-party Task and Finish Group on the Welsh Language and the census to include this matter in their deliberations and to make recommendations as to what representations the County Council should make to the Welsh Government in this respect".

Unfortunately this press release was picked up and reprinted in its entirety by at least one local newspaper.

The lesson once again for newspaper editors is to approach County Hall press releases with a extreme caution.

Thursday 20 June 2013

Iechyd da! Evangelical Bowling with a Difference

The doors of Towy Community Church's bowling alley have finally opened, and bang on cue the Licensing Committee of Carmarthenshire County Council has granted the premises a licence to serve alcohol from 10 a.m. to 9.30 p.m.

The licence application was opposed by other churches and local residents who say that they were promised by TCC that the venture would not sell alcohol. You can decide for yourselves who to believe.

In the controversy leading up to the granting of a licence, the church indicated that it was willing to compromise over licensing hours after questions were raised about the need to sell alcohol so early in the morning. In the event, no compromise was needed.

The church's pastor, Mr Mark Bennett told BBC Cymru that there would be no pumps or spirits on sale, "just a couple of bottles in the fridge".

How much the church itself has invested in the project remains a mystery, and thanks to some fairly nifty legal and financial footwork, anyone interested will have to wait until the end of this year in the slim hope that the church's accounts will cast some light on the matter.

The next phase of this exciting project will include an auditorium where the church will hold its services, although it is adamant that this should not be described as a church, along with what the architect's plans decribe as "therapy" rooms.

Quite what sort of therapy is to be offered is not clear.

Meanwhile heaven forbid that any nosey neighbours should take to inspecting the church's bins to see whether more than just a "couple of bottles" of alcoholic refreshment have been consumed.

A Thoroughbred Race

Cardiff has suffered a temporary setback in the race to secure first place in the Meryl Gravell Welsh Council Highest Paid Chief Executive Stakes. Sir Peter Rogers was due to have been brought in on £1,000 per day until the council's cabinet got the jitters and deferred a decision.

This would have been a shattering blow for Carmarthenshire where we have to make do with a chief executive whose total pay package is worth slightly less than £250,000 in an average year, and who has only a measly CBE to his name.

The campaign to get our man a knighthood and a much deserved bumper pay rise must now be on in County Hall, but Cneifiwr is happy to report that he has not been entirely overlooked.

Church bells rang and champagne corks popped in Monmouthshire yesterday as the news came through that the Welsh Government is sending in an independent recovery board to sort out the county's schools, with top billing given to Mr Mark James, chief executive of Carmarthenshire County Council.

As the WLGA never fails to point out, Welsh council chief executives are extremely busy people with enormous responsibilities, so it is impressive that in addition to his onerous day job he finds time to serve as a non-executive director of one of the Welsh Government's Director General Corporate Governance Committees (generous pay and conditions as outlined here), as well as parachuting into Monmouthshire.

Nothing comes for free these days, so with any luck £1,000 a day should be achievable. That just leaves the knighthood.

Sgersli Bilif - Newyddion o'r Gorllewin Pell

Er dryswch i'r rhai ohonoch chi welodd gyfarfod diwetha'r Cyngor Sir, mae tudalen Gymraeg y Teifiseid wedi cyhoeddi'r adroddiad canlynol:

"Mae Cynghorwyr Sir Gaerfyrddin wedi cytuno bod angen crisialu a chryfhau'r cyfarwyddyd presennol ynghylch effaith cynllunio ar y Gymraeg.

Gan drafod y mater yn ystod Cyfarfod Llawn y Cyngor, cyfeiriodd y Cynghorwyr at yr alwad yn ddiweddar gan Brif Weinidog Cymru am sylwadau ar y canllawiau a'r polisïau cynllunio mewn perthynas â'r Gymraeg, sef Nodyn Cyngor Technegol (TAN) 20.

Gofynnwyd i aelodau Grwp Gorchwyl a Gorffen trawsbleidiol - a sefydlwyd yn ddiweddar i roi sylw i'r Gymraeg a'r Cyfrifiad - ystyried y mater hwn yn eu trafodaethau.

Ar ôl ymchwilio'n drylwyr i'r mater bydd yr aelodau'n cyflwyno argymhellion ynghylch y sylwadau y dylid eu rhoi i Lywodraeth Cymru.

Yn ystod y cyfarfod dywedodd y Cynghorydd Callum Higgins, a gyflwynodd welliant i'r rhybudd o gynnig a roddwyd gerbron y Cyngor gan y Cynghorydd Alun Lenny: "Rydym i gyd yn gytûn bod angen cryfhau Nodyn Cyngor Technegol 20."

[Nid yw'r erthygl wreiddiol ar gael ar-lein]

Y gwir amdani yw bod y Cyngor Sir wedi penderfynu peidio ag ymateb i alwad Carwyn Jones. Yn ôl pob tebygrwydd bydd y Llywodraeth yn cyflwyno'r canllawiau newydd eleni, ac ni fydd y Grwp Gorchwyl a Gorffen yn cyhoeddi eu hargymhellion tan 2014.

Mae'r Cyngor Sir, dan arweiniad Plaid Lafur a'i chyfeillion "annibynnol", yn colli'r bws yn fwriadol, mae'n debyg.

Sunday 16 June 2013

Distaw, distaw, paid â deffro ein Pencampwr

5 Mehefin 2013: Y Cynghorydd Mair Stephens, sy'n aelod Bwrdd Gweithredol Cyngor Sir Caerfyrddin, yn cael ei phenodi i fod yn 'bencampwr' dros yr iaith Gymraeg.

12 Mehefin 2013: Dadl ffurfiol yn siambr Neuadd y Sir yng Nghaerfyrddin i drafod cynnig gan Alun Lenny sy'n galw ar Lywodraeth Cymru i gryfhau TAN20 yn sylweddol a sefydlu corff annibynnol i asesu'r effaith bosib ar yr iaith Gymraeg mewn ceisiadau cynllunio unigol.

Peth prin iawn yw cael clywed dadl ffurfiol am yr iaith Gymraeg yn siambr Neuadd y Sir yng Nghaerfyrddin, a phrinach fyth yw cyfraniadau Mair Stephens at unrhyw ddadl gyhoeddus.

Felly, beth oedd ymateb yr hen gynghorydd "annibynnol"?

Distawrwydd llwyr cyn pleidleisio yn erbyn y cynnig.

Saturday 15 June 2013

Labour council "the worst thing to have happened to Cardiff" - Updated

It remains to be seen whether the compromise reached on the pay of senior council executives between the Welsh Government and the opposition in Cardiff Bay will do anything to curb excesses. Probably not in truth, but events in Cardiff show why Rhodri Glyn Thomas was right to try to bring about change.

The chief executive of Cardiff City Council is jumping ship to join PriceWaterhouseCoopers, and now the WLGA is offering to pay for the services of a former aide to Boris Johnson to come in on a part-time, temporary basis to run the council.



Thanks to Caebrwyn for reminding us that the WLGA describes PwC on its website (here) as sponsors.


The unions are aghast, with one GMB official saying that "to have a Labour council back is the worst thing to have happened to Cardiff".

The Welsh Local Government Association was very quick to criticise plans to rein in council executive pay, and its intervention in Cardiff should make more people sit up and question the role of this undemocratic body which is beginning to look more and more like a gigantic job creation scam for Labour apparatchiks.

The WLGA has 68 members representing Welsh councils, and 70% of those are Labour. The second largest group on the WLGA with 14 members are our old friends the "Independents", including Pam Palmer and Mair Stephens from Carmarthenshire (in coalition with Labour). Plaid and the Tories have just 7 seats between them.

Caerphilly, Carmarthenshire and Cardiff have more than the letter 'C' in common.

Friday 14 June 2013

Big Brother in County Hall

This is the last piece to look at what happened at this week's meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council, but a subject which is certain to raise its ugly head again in the future.

This blog and other sources reported recently how one of the county councillors, Sian Caiach, discovered that council officers had been monitoring her e-mail account, and at Wednesday's meeting a second councillor, Bill Thomas (Lab) said that he had been the subject of covert filming by the council.

The two councillors have other things in common. Both have been a thorn in the side of the council executive for a long time. Both have campaigned for years against over-development, building on land prone to flooding and pollution of the Burry Inlet. Cllr Caiach is currently fighting a prosecution being brought by the council, and it is understood that Cllr Thomas has reason to believe that legal action may be taken against him also.

Matters between Cllr Caiach and the Chief Executive of the council came to a head last year when the Mr James submitted a catalogue of formal complaints against Cllr Caiach to the Ombudsman for Public Services alleging that she had breached the councillors' code of conduct.

Every one of the complaints was dismissed, and it is unlikely that that defeat has been forgotten.

Most of the facts about the monitoring of Cllr Caiach's e-mails are now out in the open. What lies behind Cllr Thomas's claims is not, but he was clearly very upset at what had happened to him.

Both now join the list of people and newspapers who have been bullied in various ways in recent years for criticising the way the council is run.


The rest of this post looks at the various statements made at Wednesday's meeting. Fortunately it was all recorded for posterity, and some of the claims and tactics used deserve careful scrutiny.

At Wednesday's meeting Cllr Darren Price raised the monitoring of Cllr Caiach's e-mails, and announced that he would be seeking a full investigation into the circumstances of the monitoring by the Policy and Resources Scrutiny Committee. He then asked Kevin Madge, the leader of the council, a series of simple questions about covert monitoring of e-mails, including whether he was aware that monitoring had taken place. The questions went unanswered, but we got the first of a series of increasingly angry interventions from the chief executive.

All councillors signed up to the council's e-mail policy, he said, and "that includes monitoring from time to time what goes on". Individual members were not asked to give authority to have things looked at, that did not happen, he added.

What that probably means is that the Council Leader was not told about the monitoring of a councillor's e-mails by unelected officers.

Mr James then turned to the case of Cllr Caiach. It is worth quoting his words verbatim.

"It had to do with a court case where disclosure of documents, e-mails and everything else was required by the High Court". He would be quite happy to provide that information to members.

Linda Rees-Jones, the council's Head of Law, added that she was aware of the incident. The e-mail had not been read, but it was tracked to see where it had been sent.

The Chief Executive then immediately jumped in again to reject an accusation that there was a department of council officers sitting monitoring e-mails. "This was completely fallacious. There is no truth to that at all".

Next came a scarcely veiled threat. The officer whom the Chief Executive said was at the centre of allegations "was extremely upset and taking advice from his union and legal advisers".

There are several things which the Policy and Scrutiny Committee may want to consider if it gets round to investigating this case.

  • Firstly the person at the centre of the row is not the IT manager who accessed Cllr Caiach's e-mails, but the anonymous individual who instructed him to do it. Almost certainly someone sitting on the podium.

  • Nobody, as far as anyone can establish, has claimed that there is a department of council spies monitoring councillors' e-mails. Perhaps the Policy and Resources committee will ask the chief executive to show them where this accusation was made.

  • What Mr James described as "allegations" are in fact a formal complaint made on the basis of hard documentary evidence of monitoring.
  • Councillors may also want to ask why the "Attendance Form" requesting access to Cllr Caiach's e-mail account was anonymous. Surely, if council officers request access to the e-mails of an elected councillor there should be a record making it clear who made the request and why.

  • But perhaps most serious of all was the claim that the monitoring in September 2011 was required by the High Court.

What had actually happened was that a couple of days before the council carried out the snooping, it had received what is known as a "Letter before Action" from Jacqui Thompson's solicitors advising the council that legal action would be taken if certain steps were not taken (e.g. an apology). At that stage no action had been initiated and no papers lodged with a court. The first the High Court heard about the case was in mid-November 2011, two and a half months after the monitoring.

The disclosure process ordered by the High Court in the run-up to the trial did not take place until a year after Cllr Caiach's e-mails were accessed.

Let us remind ourselves of what Mr James told councillors again:  "It had to do with a court case where disclosure of documents, e-mails and everything else was required by the High Court".

Mrs Rees-Jones also said that she had "been told that the e-mail itself had not been read", giving everyone watching the impression that this whole matter was something she had only become aware of after the event.

What she did not mention was that there had been no need to read the e-mail because Cllr Caiach had sent it to all 74 councillors as well as the chief executive himself. She might have added that the contents of the e-mail were nothing more than a statement calling on the council to film its proceedings.

Following that round of exchanges, Cllr Bill Thomas was slapped down when he tried to talk about his own experiences of surveillance, although seconds before the curtain came down he managed to shout that he had been the subject of covert surveillance by the council.

The Chief Executive became increasingly agitated. He told councillors that "we do not surveil anybody, and certainly not members of this council." Claims to the contrary were "untruths" . "It is not the case. It does not happen".

Given that the council's Head of Law had just admitted that it had happened and that there is cast-iron evidence that it happened in the case of Cllr Caiach, the chief executive was presumably inviting councillors to suspend their critical faculties and believe his denials instead.

Cllr Price's attempt to force Kevin Madge to answer his questions (a right set out in the council's constitution) was ruled invalid because the issue under discussion was not on the agenda.

Big Brother is alive and well and living in Carmarthen.

Carmarthenshire misses the bus

This month's meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council was dominated by a debate about planning and the Welsh language, and it is worth reflecting on what happened and the implications of the vote.

Carmarthenshire still has (just) the largest number of Welsh speakers of all the Welsh counties; it also showed one of the largest declines in the last census. For those two reasons Carmarthenshire is in the spotlight. What happens here matters, and that is why the Welsh Government set up a group of its own to examine what has been happening to the language in Carmarthenshire - note, specifically in Carmarthenshire.

That in turn means that what Carmarthenshire itself has to say is likely to resonate much more loudly than usual in Cardiff Bay.

The result of the vote on Wednesday means that instead of making itself heard, the County Council has opted to stay silent during a period when some critical decisions will be made about planning and the language.

Although there was some confusion about dates in Wednesday's debate, the important thing to remember is that the Welsh Government, having sat on its hands for two years, will be making up its mind about TAN20 (the planning guidance which covers the language) in the next couple of months.

By wrecking the motion calling on the Government to set up an independent, statutory body to handle the linguistic aspects of planning applications, the Labour Party and its "Independent" partners have ensured that Carmarthenshire County Council, and more importantly the people of Carmarthenshire, will not now have a say because the council's own cross-party group will not report back until early 2014 when the new TAN20 is done and dusted.

There have been some pretty dark chapters in the recent history of this council, and this is one of the blackest.

The wrecking amendment was tabled (in English only) by Callum Higgins, who is still in his early 20s and clearly has his sights set on becoming a career politician. Party loyalty clearly means more to him than loyalty to the community in which he grew up.

It was seconded by Pam Palmer, of all people. Pam cannot speak Welsh and appears not to have made the slightest effort to learn it. Last year she referred to Machynlleth as "the town whose name I shall not attempt to pronounce". Despite that she clearly thinks she is entitled to determine what happens to the language.

Shameful is the only word for it.

What was also clear from watching the debate on Wednesday was that a lot of backroom fixing had gone on in the run-up to the meeting.

In the row which followed the recent planning decision at Penybanc, Carmarthenshire once again found itself in the spotlight. There was some surprise that the Head of Planning, Eifion Bowen, had spoken out and called for an independent body to be set up, as proposed in the original Plaid motion.

A number of councillors referred to this, but in a characteristic intervention the chief executive claimed that he was not aware of any such statement. Perhaps Mr Bowen would like to comment himself.....

Of course, the chief executive would never invite someone to speak in the council chamber with the cameras rolling if he did not have a pretty good idea of what was going to be said.

So Eifion Bowen waffled and repeated several times that all he really wanted was clarity and certainty. He did not actually deny making his comments; he just avoided any refence to what he had said. But here he is speaking on camera to the BBC.

Someone, most likely someone sitting not a million miles from him in the council chamber, had clearly had words with Eifion Bowen.

To end on a positive note, there were some very good speeches during the debate. Alun Lenny, Emlyn Dole  and Cefin Campbell were impressive and balanced, but Sian Caiach deserves special praise. She spoke sincerely and from the heart about her wish as a non-Welsh speaker to see an end to the neglect, indifference and destruction which threatens to rob this county of its identity and one of its greatest riches.

Wednesday 12 June 2013

Council of Despair

The Chief walked briskly back to the sanctity of the Executive Suite, his fists clenched in fury. They would pay for this, they would all pay for this, he thought to himself angrily as he turned the gold-plated door handle and walked across the vast expanse of Persian Axminster to his Louis XIV ormolu desk.

Smithers shimmered in through the side door bearing a silver tray of organic Myddfai Mint Tea, a gift from HRH Prince Charles and Camilla.

"Mint tea is very soothing, Sir", Smithers said sympathetically as the Chief sat ashen-faced, staring nostalgically at the gilt-framed portrait of Meryl.

Things had been so much easier back then, he mused, only to be interrupted by Smithers giving one of his little coughs.

"Shall I show them in now, Sir? They are waiting in the ante-room."

"Let them wait", the Chief snapped. It was all so predictable. Madge would give another reading from the Garnant Book of Cliches. He could hear it now:

"It's time they smelled the coffee and realised that we don't live in the real world. We are staring into a black hole, and I would like to thank all the officers for an effort of biblical proportions at the grass roots."

The bossy dog woman in the brown trouser suit would say "I told you so. We should never have let those cameras in. What a disaster!"

And the worst thing about it was that she was right. The carefully scripted meeting and lovingly crafted agenda had once again been derailed.

First it was the Nats and their ludicrous demands. He had never been able to get to grips with the language, and couldn't see what all the fuss was about. Their latest attempt to raise the subject had been seen off, thanks to that little Higgins character, but the next thing would be hordes of unwashed Cymdeithas protesters yelling and screaming in the Executive Car Park, and Griffith Hughes Jones, or whatever his name was, egging them on with his cynghanedd.

Meryl had once more given the critics ammunition with one of her notorious quotes. What had it been this time? Something about moaning parents and a suggestion that they should send their kids off to play on the motorway. Although with any luck the press would not pick up on that, what with all the other disasters. The Carmarthen Journal certainly wouldn't, he consoled himself.

Then it was that diabolical woman with the red hair. After months of trying she had finally managed to unleash a torrent of untreated effluent in the Chamber and done untold damage to the Local Development Plan with her claims about sewage and beaches. He made a mental note to ask Smithers to ring that overweight former councillor in Burry Port and get him to do a publicity swim.

If that hadn't been bad enough, that whipper snapper Price had spilled the beans about the top secret PRISM surveillance system. Nothing but trouble since the day he had first set foot in County Hall.

To cap it all, there had been that bolshy Bill Thomas from Llanelli who had shouted about being covertly filmed.

Fortunately the new Chair (so much more dependable than the last loose cannon) had managed to bring things to a swift end, and had the cameras switched off.

Smithers coughed once more.

"Very well, Smithers. Show them in", the Chief ordered.

The door had barely opened before he heard that familiar voice barking, "I told you so...."

The mint tea suddenly developed a very bitter taste.

Sticking to the Agenda

After the mind numbing tedium of May's fancy dress AGM, Carmarthenshire County Council was back to business as usual with a sickening car crash of a meeting. How the powers that be in County Hall must regret allowing the cameras in.

Cneifiwr unfortunately missed the first part of today's meeting, and so a full report will have to wait until the archived version becomes available. Given what happened today it is likely that a lot of legal midnight oil will be burned before that goes up on the council's website.

As with the May AGM, the technical quality and online tools were excellent, with one important exception.

On a number of occasions during the last year opposition councillors have managed to navigate their way through the Kafka-esque rules to table a motion (on one occasion the Chief Executive ruled a motion invalid because it was not dated, even though the rules state that he is responsible for noting the time and date on which they are submitted).

Invariably, the governing Labour-Independent coalition responds by submitting a wrecking amendment, which then gets voted through to become the substantive motion.

The agenda is published several days ahead of the actual meeting, and so the public can see the opposition motion. For reasons known only to the top brass in County Hall, the text of any amendments is not published, and the net effect is that any members of the public expecting to hear a debate on the published motion, find instead that they are listening to a debate about an amendment that they cannot read.

Under the rules there is more than enough time for the council's systems to be updated to show the proposed amendments, but they never are.

Bearing in mind that the Chief Executive and the council's Head of Law make a huge amount of fuss about not deviating from the agenda because, they claim, members of the public expecting to hear a discussion of X may be upset, and even have recourse to legal action if they are subjected to something not on the agenda, this cavalier approach to the council's obligations under the 1972 Local Government Act is perplexing.

For those not familiar with the wording of this sacred text, the Act makes it plain that information should be made available by councils to the public before it is discussed in a public meeting.

Tuesday 11 June 2013

A very peculiar kind of democracy

The second meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council to be filmed and broadcast live to anyone interested will take place on 12 June, beginning at 10 a.m.

The council will no doubt make much of this experiment as evidence of its commitment to local democracy and transparency, but anyone who takes a closer look will see that this is a democracy like no other.

Take the agenda (here) which ends abruptly at point 12, "Membership of the Corporate Governance Group". Unlike any other public meeting there is no "Any Other Business".

Meetings of the full council used to have AOB as the final agenda item until a councillor rashly tried to raise a point under AOB at the back end of last year. His attempt failed, with the Chief Executive ordering that the meeting be brought to a close.

Since then AOB has been absent from the agenda, which is drawn up by the chief executive.

Although the council's standing orders make it clear that councillors may raise issues under AOB, the absence of AOB means they cannot. Only items submitted by the chief executive may be discussed, and conversely items which he does not want discussed are not allowed because there is no space for them on the agenda.

Carmarthenshire is almost certainly the only council in Britain not to have AOB on the agenda.

Regenerating Carmarthenshire - Meryl and the Hot Tubs

Times may be tough, and council leader Kevin Madge recently warned that we face cuts of "biblical proportions", but it is good to see that there are some areas of the County Council's responsibilities where it is still business as usual.

Meryl Gravell and a group of council officers (numbers vary from four up to a dozen) meet once a month in private to dole out various grants to deserving projects. In March this year 11 officers and Meryl gathered to discuss various matters, including proposals to reorganise the county's museum services (see previous post). A report (not available for public inspection) was approved recommending that resources be "focused around one main museum site supported by satellite services and facilities".

What that means in plain language is not clear. Will the main site be the County Museum in Abergwili or Parc Howard in Llanelli? What is a satellite facility?

Having duly rubber stamped the recommendations, the meeting moved on to approve small grants for various community projects, although Burry Port Rugby Football Club struck lucky with a grant of £20,475, and Llansteffan Sports Association picked up £25,000.

The meeting then turned its attention to various applications for grants from private businesses, including £10,000 for a solar panel system to power a hot tub and a holiday cottage in Abergorlech, and £25,000 for two hot tubs and gazebos at holiday cottages near Newcastle Emlyn.

You can buy a pretty decent hot tub for around £6,000.

It seems that the Newcastle Emlyn hot tubs will for the time being run off the grid. No doubt a grant for solar panels will follow in due course.
Executive Member Decision Meetings can get crowded

Monday 10 June 2013

Municipal Pride


Caebrwyn reports on the latest reshuffle of the Politburo in County Hall where Pam Palmer takes over as 'Youth Ambassador' and drops her responsibilities for Rural Affairs. Whatever her achievements were in rural affairs is not recorded.

In addition to representing the county's youth, Pam also assumes responsibility for Sustainability (in Carmarthenshire this means building giant housing estates and supermarkets), and Biodiversity (a.k.a. pest control).
Our new Youth Ambassador (the one in the frock). With thanks to the South Wales Guardian.


While researching for a different project I stumbled across this clip advertising the recent production of Tir Sir Gar. 45 seconds in, and we get a shot of the main entrance of the County Museum at Abergwili just outside Carmarthen, a museum run by the County Council.

Another part of the Tir Sir Gar archive is a series of short films looking at 12 objects from the museum chosen by the artist Marc Rees to represent different aspects of the story.

As for the building itself, what should be a jewel in the county's crown telling the story of Carmarthenshire's rich cultural and industrial heritage, looks instead like some long gone asylum or TB isolation hospital. The paint is cracked and peeling, the remains of dead plants dangle down the portico, and the exterior of the building is a dirty and shabby grey.

It wouldn't cost much to give the building a face lift and a lick of paint. Many local authorities would be proud to possess such a building and keen to show off its contents. Not so Carmarthenshire, where municipal delegations and visiting dignitaries are more likely to be whisked off to sample the delights of the new Odeon cinema in Llanelli (whose owners, a global private equity group called Terra Firma, received £20,000 from the council to help pay for its 3D system), or the evangelical bowling alley in Johnstown, recipient of enough council money to completely renovate the museum and run it for years.

The museum in Abergwili stands neglected and forlorn in the ward represented by Cllr Pam Palmer, deputy leader of the council, and someone who has sat on the governing Executive Board for more years than anyone cares to remember.

At the end of 2011, in what bore all the hallmarks of a pre-election PR stunt, the administration in which Pam is a leading light announced plans to shut the museum down. Pam then announced a temporary stay of execution and said that she was working on a rescue package. If anyone knows what happened to that, please get in touch.

Unloved and neglected by the authority charged with its care, the crumbling museum stands as a fitting monument to Pam's long career in County Hall.


Sunday 9 June 2013

The Ombudsman comes over all shy - Updated

Reports that Peter Tyndall, Ombudsman for Public Services in Wales, is seeking new powers to prevent publication of some of his reports and prosecute anyone who discloses their content to the media have attracted almost universal criticism.

Plaid Wrexham has explained how the Ombudsman and the public authorities he investigates are already protected from the public gaze. Sometimes the only way in which abuses and maladministration by public bodies become public knowledge is if the complainant goes to the press.

While the Ombudsman, local authorities and other public bodies usually agree on steps to be taken to remedy abuses and changes to procedures to prevent the recurrence of such abuses, it is sometimes the case that the offending authorities are extremely reluctant to own up to any wrong-doing. Carmarthenshire County Council's begrudging and very half-hearted acceptance of criticism is a case in point.

But if there is one thing which bodies such as Carmarthenshire hate more than criticism by the Ombudsman, it is public reporting of what has happened. Naming and shaming and coverage of scandals in the media is the most powerful way of holding our PR obsessed institutions to account.

Despite the limitations on his powers and the secrecy which is built into the system, public confidence in Peter Tyndall and his office remains high. For the victims of abuse and maladministration he is a friend and the only hope they have of getting redress. It is a great pity that he feels the need to retreat behind the same walls of secrecy as so many other public bodies.

Whether Peter Tyndall will get his way remains to be seen, but in the meantime his office has taken steps to remove the majority of his reports from public view. The Ombudsman's website was very recently rejigged, and now only gives access to reports from the last two years.

Delyth Jenkins recently wrote to the Ombudsman asking him to restore the archives.


Delyth writes: I received a response to my letter dated the 22nd May 2013, on Friday 7th June 2013, from an Ombudsman's representative. She stated that and I quote, "It has been the practice to hold the full text of public Interest reports on the website for a period of two years. The rationale for the two year timeline is that legislation, statutory guidance and policies and procedures of public bodies change over time. Holding the full text of reports on the website for long periods therefore risks misleading people when they are reading about circumstances and information, which are possibly no longer current or relevant". She goes on to say that the summaries of investigations are contained in the Ombudsman's casebook and their Annual reports, and that the summary of my complaint, ref no 200600720, can be found in their Annual Report 2009/10.

What hasn't changed is the fact that Officers of the Council, who were so severely criticised within that report, have not been held to account because they were given anonymity by the Ombudsman.
I believe that all reports upheld by the Ombudsman, should be public Interest reports, and all Officers who have failed should be named and shamed. That is the ONLY WAY the service will improve.

I have serious concerns that if these additional powers are granted to the Ombudsman, to keep certain reports secret, then reports such as mine will not reach the public domain and will not be acted upon. I was forced to go to the press with my complaint because there had been no accountability, and I still have serious concerns that Officers who were so severely criticised by the Ombudsman, are still managing the care of the most vulnerable people in society. It is now nearly 4 years since the publication of this damning report. Not enough is being done to protect the vulnerable.

Saturday 8 June 2013

Adam Price comes home

Alun Lenny, one of Plaid's county councillors in Carmarthen, recently gave a superb lecture on Carmarthenshire's history of rioting and civil disobedience. Our forbears were certainly a more lively lot, and if they were around today it is likely that the glaziers would be kept very busy repairing the windows at County Hall.

Perhaps the unruly days of the past may yet make a return. The other day council leader Kevin Madge was predicting cuts of "biblical proportions". Perhaps he is more prescient than most of us thought because a couple of days later Ed Milliband and Ed Balls promised to deliver just that if they get back into power in Westminster.

What has not changed is the volatile nature of politics in the county. The old Carmarthen constituency had a continuous history from 1542 until it was abolished in 1997. In the nineteenth century it returned Tories on only two occasions for very brief periods, and in the twentieth century it accidentally acquired a Tory on only one occasion for a couple of years when a Liberal switched sides.

For most of the last 200 years then, Carmarthen has consistently backed the forces of progress and radicalism.

The constituency has twice made history since the Second World War: firstly with the election of Gwynfor Evans as the first Plaid Cymru MP in 1966, and secondly for its pivotal role in the 1997 Referendum. It has also punched beyond its weight with some of the politicians it has returned to Westminster since 1945, including Megan Lloyd George, Gwynfor Evans and Adam Price (the latter representing Carmarthen East and Dinefwr which was carved out of the old constituency).

With Jonathan Edwards and Rhodri Glyn Thomas the constituency also stands out from the pack.

Adam Price announced yesterday that he would be putting his name forward as a candidate to represent Carmarthen East and Dinefwr for Plaid in the Senedd following the retirement of Rhodri Glyn Thomas.

Adam is one of the most exciting and interesting politicians around, and not just in Wales. He has a clear vision and a natural ability to communicate his ideas. Above all, he conveys a sense of optimism and hope.

Croeso 'nol Adam. Gall Cymru.

Friday 7 June 2013

Rhodri Glyn Thomas upsets some fat cats

Rhodri Glyn Thomas may be standing down at the next Assembly elections, but he is not going quietly. A year ago he launched a campaign to get the Welsh Government to rethink its plans to pass on Westminster cuts to council tax benefit, and he eventually succeeded in getting the government to bring forward a measure this year which will help 300,000 people. Even Kevin Madge, the leader of Carmarthenshire County Council, praised his efforts.

This week came the news that Rhodri Glyn Thomas has been instrumental in forcing the Welsh Government into another U-turn over senior council officer pay. The Welsh Government will now table proposals to set up an independent panel to control the pay of council fat cats.

There have been predictable howls of outrage from the Welsh Local Government Association and threats that in between trips to Buckingham Palace to collect their CBEs, MBEs and other gongs for loyal service, etc., etc., the deserving rich from Welsh county halls may find time to sue the rest of us for compensation.

It has also been argued that the existence of all these generous pay deals could be a major stumbling block to the overdue and much-needed reform of local government in Wales. Fewer councils would mean fewer officers, and that could mean lots of very expensive golden parachutes and redundancy packages.

Others have argued that having centralised control of senior officer pay is an attack on local democracy and the right of local councillors to reward their officers as they see fit, even though senior officer pay is already subject to national terms and conditions. Try telling that to the long suffering people of Carmarthenshire and see if you live to tell the tale.

If it is a competitive market, it's a very strange one with enormous disparities. In Wrexham only one officer earns more than £100,000 (£105,000 according to the BBC), and the roof has not fallen in yet. Carmarthenshire, by contrast, has enough big earners to fill a small bus (not that they would be seen dead on one, of course). In fact, Carmarthenshire's chief executive is either the highest earning chief executive in Wales or the second highest, depending on who's counting. The departure of Cardiff's chief executive is likely to remove any niggling doubts and ensure that Mark James finally gets the top spot.

Something the WLGA would probably also rather keep quiet about is the peculiar correlation between top earning council officers and council scandals. Carmarthenshire County Council regularly makes the news headlines despite the best efforts of its bloated PR machine, and over in Pembrokeshire the council has had a very torrid time with the press and interfering government ministers.

Rhodri Glyn Thomas has also called on Welsh local government to begin developing talent of its own rather than buying in expensive imports from England. Perhaps that might mean that counties like Carmarthenshire could in future even get chief executives who can speak Welsh, as well as costing a fraction of what we pay now.

Council admits snooping on councillor's e-mails

Carmarthenshire County Council finally got round to issuing a statement yesterday admitting that it had accessed the e-mail account of Cllr Sian Caiach (see Western Mail report here).

Given the existence of an internal form reporting details of an e-mail sent by the councillor, the council could hardly deny that snooping had taken place. Equally unsurprising, the council sees no need to apologise for what it did, and most of the statement is taken up with a reminder that it has the power to monitor the e-mail accounts of both staff and councillors without their knowledge or permission.

There are a couple of problems with the statement.

Firstly the authors talk about the council as though it was a person capable of doing all the things which real people can do, albeit a lofty and strictly impartial person. The reality is that it was real people in the shape of senior council officers who decided to target Cllr Caiach's e-mail account.

A sinister aspect of this is that the identity of the officer or officers requesting the information from IT remains unknown because they did not put their names on the form (the first part of the form is headed "Name of Client").

The second problem with the council's response is that it is misleading in one key respect. The reason for the snooping, the council says, was that:

In this case, the council had become the subject of legal action and needed to identify potential evidence in an impending court case and the email came to light as a result.

Cllr Caiach's e-mail account was accessed on 2 September 2011, and the council was at that stage not actually the subject of legal action. What had happened just a couple of days previously was that Jacqui Thompson's solicitors had written what is called a letter before action to the council.

The purpose of a letter before action is to advise that legal action may be taken, and the reason for sending such a letter is to initiate discussion in the hope that court action can be avoided.

So there was no legal action at that stage, and certainly no "impending court case". The relevant papers initiating legal proceedings were not served on the council until three months after the snooping took place. Moreover, the e-mail did not somehow accidentally come to light while council officers were looking for something else, but the action was targeted.

Cllr Caiach's stance in favour of allowing the public to film council meetings was not a secret. She had made her position very clear in public, and council officers can have been in no doubt that in the event of a legal action, there was a very strong possibility that Cllr Caiach would be a witness for Jacqui Thompson.

So why were senior council officers so interested in Cllr Caiach's e-mails? There appears to be no suggestion that she was suspected of any criminal wrong-doing, and the contents of the e-mail revealed nothing which was not already in the public domain. The suspicion has to be that someone was hoping to catch her out, and that does not justify snooping.

I'm not a lawyer, but it seems to me that covert monitoring of a potential witness should constitute contempt of court.

Thursday 6 June 2013

The Llanelli Star in Choppy Waters

Ruck Off

A few days ago this blog questioned why the Llanelli Star was employing the services of Julian Ruck as a weekly columnist, and it turns out that the paper has received strong complaints from regular readers about his bigoted and vitriolic attacks on a range of subjects including the Welsh language and Welsh culture.

The newspaper says that it has had numerous conversations with Julian Ruck to voice its concerns about his column and that it has been unable to reach agreement with him on "objectives for the column moving forward". As a result, the newspaper "is currently not accepting nor receiving further columns from Mr Ruck".

The good news for anyone suffering from withdrawal symptoms is that you can continue to read his rantings on the Labour Party's Labour Uncut website.


The Llanelli Star has also come under fire for its increasingly blatant bias towards the Labour Party under its acting editor, Alana Lewis. In addition to Julian Ruck, the newspaper plays host to regular columns written by Nia Griffith MP (Lab) and Keith Davies AM (Lab). Nothing unusual about that, but three times during May Ms Lewis popped up at the end of the politicans' columns to ask readers to contact her if they had any questions for Nia and Keith, giving readers the impression that she was acting as their agent.

Of course, the Llanelli Star has every right to support any political party it chooses, or none, but if a local paper starts to act as a mouthpiece for a particular political party, it should nail its colours to the mast and make its political leanings clear to readers.

As a marginal constituency in which Labour squeaked in with a majority of just 80 in the last Assembly elections, the Star probably can't afford to alienate a large section of its readership, and it has given assurances that it will remain politically unbiased.

Time will tell.

 Bonkers Burry Port

And finally in what has to be one of this week's most bizarre stories, Burry Port Town Council has passed a motion banning any of its councillors who write columns for the Llanelli Star from being a member of its various committees.

The reason for the move was not the sudden discovery by council members of any love for Welsh culture; neither was it triggered by objections to the paper's political bias, but by the activities of Cllr Graham Davies who has begun writing a column for the paper covering dangerous topics such as gardening, holidays and folk music.

The motion was brought by Cllr Steve James, until he was booted out by voters last year one of the leading lights of Pam Palmer's Independent group in County Hall. Cllr James, a practising Tory, explained that councillors were concerned that by writing the column, Cllr Davies might "be in touch with the process of the press", and that by writing a column, it was somehow elevating one particular councillor above the rest, who presumably are barely literate and therefore disqualified from such elitist activities.

With all these columns, it's a wonder that there is any space for news in the Llanelli Star.

Libel News

It's taken a while, but the legal system has finally presented the bill for the libel case involving blogger Jacqui Thompson and Mark James, chief executive of Carmarthenshire Council. You can read Jacqui's statement about it here.

There were two parts to the case: the action brought by Jacqui against the chief executive over comments he made in a letter he wrote to the Madaxeman blog, and a counterclaim brought by Mr James against Jacqui. The costs were £190,000 and £41,000 for these two actions respectively. In addition, Jacqui has been ordered to pay £25,000 in damages to Mr James personally.

All told, that's just over £250,000, an amount which exceeds the value of the smallholding where Jacqui and her family live.

It took more than a year for the case to come to court, and as Jacqui says, in the first few months the hope and expectation was that the two parties would reach a settlement. That opportunity was lost.

The bombshell comes at the end of Jacqui's statement where she reveals that her insurers used the wording of the judgement to withdraw their cover. The entire £250,000 therefore falls on Jacqui and her family, who the judge noted were of very modest means.

Where this leaves the council is not clear. What is known is that the council's own insurance was invoked to meet the cost of the defence, while the council funded the counterclaim action directly. Whatever happens, the result will be a black hole for the council's tax payers, while Jacqui and her family face the prospect of being made homeless by the council, which would then have to rehouse them.

In his many interviews and articles since the judgment was handed down, Mr James has described this as an important victory for local government. Pyrrhic would be more apt. Wiser councils, particularly councils which are run by elected councillors rather than unelected officials, will certainly think twice before following the route Mr James took Carmarthenshire down.

The legal construct which the county council used to bring its counterclaim could and should have been challenged by the Welsh Government, which chose to sit on the sidelines wringing its hands.

The manner in which the council funded the counterclaim was, bizarrely, one of the key features of Mr James's case against Jacqui. The judge found Jacqui's description of the arrangement whereby Carmarthenshire County Council changed its constitution to enable council officers and members to dip into taxpayers funds to bring libel actions to be libellous.

Jacqui's lawyers are now seeking leave to appeal the judgement, and we wish her every success.