The recent posts dealing with Carmarthenshire County Council, Towy Community Church and Mercy Ministries have met with one of the largest responses this parochial little blog has received since it started, and the comments received have been almost unanimous in their alarm and disgust.
The press has so far remained silent on the reappearance of the Mercy Ministries link. That is not surprising in the case of the Carmarthen Journal which has never breathed a word about any of this to its readers, but what both this blog and Carmarthenshire Planning have noticed is a great deal of interest in the story from other quarters, including the Welsh Government.
Thanks to one of the contributors, we now also know that Towy Community Church is a partner agency in the council's Team Around The Family initiative set up to help vulnerable children and families. Most of the agencies named are council departments or long-established charities. Two have close links to the Church in Wales, but Towy Community Church stands out as the body with by far the shortest history and track record in this field, and also as the only body pursuing a fundamentalist religious ideology.
In addition to being part of the Team Around The Family, the church operates a foodbank in close cooperation with the council, a debt counselling service featuring prayer and, once again in conjunction with the council, an annual Christmas toybox appeal with toys collected by the council and other public bodies but handed over to the church for distribution.
A legitimate question is therefore why this small organisation has risen so rapidly to such a position of prominence and received so much public money.
Jacqui Thompson, the author of the Carmarthenshire Planning blog, has been fighting a very long battle to get the council to disclose correspondence with the church. The first attempt was dismissed on the grounds that it would take the council too much time to fish out all of the documents. The Information Commissioner ruled against the council, which then took a different tack by declaring the request to be vexatious. The Information Commissioner has once again been asked to rule.
From that you may reasonably conclude that:
a) There must be a great deal of correspondence between the council and the church, and
b) That the council is desperately keen not to allow the public to see it.
If there are direct personal links between senior councillors and the church it is unlikely that you would find anything in the register of interests (available for inspection by appointment only with a senior officer watching you) because religious affiliations are not normally declared. In the case of senior council officers there is no register of interests to be inspected, and even if there were it is perfectly possible for anyone to be an active supporter of a body such as Towy Community Church, and even attend its Sunday services from time to time without actually becoming a member.
But perhaps everything really is squeaky clean. The trouble is that without disclosure of the records of the dealings between the council and the church, we shall never know.
If CCC have nothing to hide then why did Bruce McLernon not mention this "Team Around The Family" initiative during his speech at the council meeting of the 10th July 2013?
Other local authorities require that ANY employees who might have a potential conflict of interest should tell their Chief Officer who will refer the matter to the Monitoring Officer. The Monitoring Officer will then enter it into the Register of Interests. It is spelt out that such conflicts can arise where an employee, their spouse or partner:
- has a “substantial” shareholding in a company which is contracted to work for the County Council;
- runs a business or is employed by a company or voluntary sector organisation that is engaged to work for the County Council; or
- belongs to a local action group or organisation which is campaigning against something the Council is doing or proposing to do, or seeking to influence the County Council in some way..
It also says that those involved in tendering should declare an interest if they, their friends or relatives are involved with the body tendering for a contract.
I’d feel much happier if this kind of transparency existed in Carmarthenshire – it does not guarantee that murky shenanigans won’t take place, but at least we would know if there were a blatant case of undue influence.
How can a request for information which is in the public interest be regarded as vexatious?
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