Wednesday 13 November 2013

Question Time on the Titanic

Cneifiwr managed to catch the last half hour of today's monthly meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council. Anyone with a strong stomach can watch the whole thing here when it comes online in the archive, probably from tomorrow afternoon.

The final half hour included the minutes of the now famous Audit Committee meeting at which it emerged that the Wales Audit Office had objected to two payments to the chief executive. That was back in September, and it has taken almost two months for the item to make an appearance in front of the full council and give councillors their first opportunity to even mention the scandal without being told to sit down.

When this tawdry episode in the history of Carmarthenshire is over, it is likely that people will look back at the Audit Committee meeting as the moment when it became clear that the great unsinkable liner had struck an iceberg.

After Captain Kevin Madge backed out of his promise to arrange a debate and provide "all the necessary papers" the week before last (the same week that he told the South Wales Guardian that the debate would be going ahead), it was clear that anxious passengers and crew asking for more information were not going to end up any the wiser after today's meeting.

Not mentioned at today's meeting were whispers in the media that someone not a million miles from Kev now thinks that the scandal is much worse than he first feared, and there had obviously been a pre-meeting meeting to agree tactics for handling awkward questions.

The strategy was to say nothing and let Linda Rees Jones, the council's acting Head of Law, do all the talking.

The Captain and the First Officer left the bridge, and Linda was running the show. She was clearly determined to go down with the ship, and she hung on grimly.

Peering from under a thatch of wild white hair and over some suitably scary half-moon specs, she told councillors that the letter she had received from the Wales Audit Office was "very frightening". Nothing further could be said about it at the moment.

A succession of councillors asked the Leader, Kevin Madge, for answers on a whole series of matters relating to the pensions and libel indemnity payments. Kev sat grimly in silence, and up popped Mrs Rees Jones to say that she could not say any more. The chief executive had also taken a vow of silence.

Cllr Alun Lenny (Plaid) pointed out that the council was justifying its silence on a piece of law which had long since been superseded. Silence.

Cllr Darren Price (Plaid) wanted to know if the police had been in contact with the council. Silence.

Cllr Cefin Campbell wanted to know what all this very expensive legal advice was costing the council. Mrs Rees Jones replied that the matter was still ongoing, and so she could not put any numbers to it, before she finally snapped. The council had to take the best legal advice available, and she resented criticism of the council's decision to spend accordingly.

Cllr Campbell added that he was being asked questions by voters and was embarrassed by what was going on.

For any readers who feel that Cneifiwr is showing bias and only reporting what Plaid councillors said, it would have been a pleasure to report on what the Labour representatives in the chamber had to say. What we got from them was total silence.

While Linda clung desperately to the wheel on the bridge, the grizzled Independents seem to have decided that their job was to provide the on-board entertainment, with Cllr Pam Palmer conducting the orchestra in a rousing rendition of Abide with Me. 

There was nothing to be embarrassed about. The audit report was excellent, apart from a couple of minor points. No other council in Wales could boast of such a fine report (stop sniggering at the back, all you readers in other Welsh councils).

Older readers may recall that someone once quipped that if Harold Wilson had been captain of the Titanic, he would have informed passengers that the ship was merely pausing to take on more ice for its champagne bar.

So it was that Pam told councillors that they should go back to their voters and tell them what a great job the council and its officers had been doing.

This was a wonderful report, and glug, glug, glug.


Owen said...

Is there enough room on the floating driftwood? "I'll never let go, Mark. I promise."

Anonymous said...

Kevin Madge talked about ostriches hiding in the sand- actually it is hiding heads in the sand.Is not that what Pam Palmer is doing? It beggars belief that she is still clinging on
to a sinking ship.

Anonymous said...

I too admired Pam's chutzpah; how many Members will be rushing back to their constituents to tell them what a fine job "Roger" had done in producing what she curiously referred to as a mostly "unqualified" audit report? I take it that she means that the WAO had no concerns about most of it - it was just the instances of spending public money unlawfully that they were making all the fuss about - bureaucrats, huh?

Whilst I could scarcely believe what I was hearing and seeing, I must congratulate the Council (seriously now) for ensuring that the webcasting was done properly. I could see who was speaking and hear what they said, which is more than can often be achieved in the public gallery. The camera operator was clearly awake and on the ball, which might not have been the case elsewhere in the Chamber, and he or she did a good job. A great service - and needs to be extended to all Council meetings.

Mrs Angry said...

It is truly a surprise to see how the dynamics of the relationship between senior officers and elected members work in this council.The exchange with Cllr Caiach over what sort of information she is entitled to have and the way in which it was expressed was really quite extraordinary, in my view.

Even in Barnet, officers take great care to pretend that the councillors are really in charge, whilst laughing up their sleeves.

In Carmarthenshire it seems that while the Chair demands an almost feudal respect from members, officers are not under the same obligation to defer to councillors, as should be the case. This demonstrates quite clearly that there is a democratic deficit right there, in the chamber, and it can only be a matter of time before it becomes necessary to adjust the balance of power to the setting on which it should operate.c

Mrs Angry said...

PS - Cneifiwr - are you 'Mr Bloggy'? I think we should be told.

Cneifiwr said...

Who knows, Mrs Angry? Apparently Mr Bloggy is responsible for dragging politics into the Council Chamber in Kev's view.

Kev has of course never had anything to do with politics.

Cneifiwr said...

Anon @18.38 I agree 100% - the quality of the broadcasts is excellent, and I very much hope that they continue next year and are extended to other meetings.

One issue raised yesterday was the quality of minutes. It seems that a part of the record of the Audit Committee meeting which dealt with concerns about the risks of the Scarlets deal was completely absent from the minutes.

The only way councillors and the public can get a reliable and truthful account of important meetings is the filmed record.

Emlyn Uwch Cych said...

It was a classic rambling, metaphor-crunching speech from Mr Madge, though: " ... they're playing political ping-pong ... political ostriches sitting in the sand, hoping it will all go away ... you get your spindoctors, you get Mr. Bloggy, you get other people, and every time they react, you jump ... You're one-sided; you just come here with your politics." Watch from 1:37.07, and weep.

Anonymous said...

It seems many of those speaking need to brought under Disrepute charges. There making themselves and the people of Carmarthenshire look like a bunch of plebs.

Anonymous said...

I doubt that webcam evidence will ensure that items get minuted properly - in the surreal world of CCC the rule seems to be that if you don't want something challenged by awkward members, merely ensure that it doesn't appear on the minutes, and then the rule seems to be that if it isn't in the minutes, you can't talk about it. There must have been other Members in the Chamber who could have backed up Cllr Caiach's version of what transpired in the Audit Committee, but staying mute seems to be a tried and tested way of avoiding answering questions or otherwise rocking the boat.

Mrs Angry said...

I must say I do like the way Cllr Madge and others try so very hard to keep the politics out of a political process. Not sure what is left when you do that, but so much easier to control, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

"Mr. Bloggy" eh? Well, it's clearly all over for you then - a figure of fun - a ridiculous fool, a childish idiot...

Only of course, even a child can see through this sham... What's that you say? You're *not* the being investigated for unlawful acts, but the ruling junta, and there's no easy way to say this I'm afraid, sort of, well, ARE???

Ironic isn't it - as mentioned in the chamber, the public are far more concerned with the issues you have raised than any other, and yet rather than addressing the concerns of those they are meant to represent, the council instead tries to mock you. In so doing, they actually mock both their constituents and the democratic process they are supposed to be following. (It's ok lads - you'll find "Democratic Process" in "How To Be A Councillor For Dummies" - you only have to be arsed to look.)

They play the man instead of the ball, and it's hard to escape the conclusion that they do that for a reason.