Wednesday 29 October 2014

The Twilight Zone

The WLGA's report on governance in Carmarthenshire County Council is expected to be published shortly, and the chief executive has applied to be paid a small fortune so that he can take his leave of us and head off for somewhere where his talents are more widely appreciated. Kevin Madge, now two and a half years into his job as leader of the council, boasts that he wants to make Carmarthenshire the most open and transparent council in Wales.

If the warm winds of change are blowing and are about to usher in a new flowering of local democracy in Carmarthenshire's permafrost, nobody in County Hall has noticed.

The last two months have seen a cat and mouse game played out in front of the cameras, with opposition and backbench councillors submitting questions to the Executive Board but being denied the right to ask follow-up questions. The constitution does not say that follow-up questions are allowed, therefore they are banned.

Given a chance to remove this absurdity by temporarily suspending this invisible rule, Kevin Madge showed his commitment to openness and transparency by getting his Labour and Independent troops to vote no. The gag remains in place.

Meanwhile a new committee has begun meeting to oversee the implementation of a package of recommendations designed to bolster the position of the Welsh language in the county.

Although the 1972 Local Government Act says that meetings of committees and sub-committees should be open to the public, except when sensitive information is being discussed, and that they should publish minutes of their proceedings, it has been decided that meetings of this committee should be closed to the public, and their minutes exempted from publication, although you may write to the council and ask for a copy under the Freedom of Information Act.

The reason for this is that it has been decided that this committee, comprising 9 elected councillors with 3 each for Labour, the Independents and Plaid Cymru (cross-party but not politically balanced therefore) is not actually a committee or sub-committee at all, but an "Advisory Panel".

Because there is no mention of advisory panels in the constitution (see follow-up questions) or the Local Government Act, the body does not formally exist and is therefore exempt from the law, even though a majority of its members is understood to be in favour of allowing the press and public in and publishing minutes.

Peeling their legalistic onions once again, the chief executive and acting head of law regret that this is not possible. The rules may be invisible, but invisible rules is still rules.

The panel, we are led to believe, is a "strategic" as opposed to "constitutional" body, and it may not make decisions, only recommendations. It may look and sound like a scrutiny committee or even a sub-committee of a scrutiny committee as it goes about scrutinising the progress, or lack of, being made in implementing the 70-odd recommendations. But it is not, and it is therefore consigned to operate in the shadows.

How this squares with Kevin Madge's promise to create the most open and transparent council in Wales is a question councillors may wish to ask. No follow-up questions allowed, however.

The Advisory Panel therefore joins that other august body, the council's Business Management Group, in leading a sort of twilight existence.

The Business Management Group (BMG) has been around for a long while, and its membership is made up of senior councillors from the three main political groups, although its composition does not reflect the way people voted at the 2012 elections either.

Its meetings are not open to the public, and it does not publish minutes, although these may be obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. But whereas the legal guard dogs argue that the Advisory Panel does not make decisions and cannot therefore be held in public or publish minutes, the BMG is very much in the decision making business, including deciding on changes to the constitution. But it is still secret.

Joining the Advisory Panel and the BMG in the constitutional black hole are so-called Decision Meetings where august members of the Executive Board rubber stamp all sorts of things behind closed doors. Meryl Gravell recently popped into County Hall, taking time off from Christmas shopping and/or being Florence Nightingale, to ladle out another dollop of grants for solar panels, garden furniture and other goodies for the holiday cottage industry. One lucky recipient whose previous winnings included £25,000 for two hot tubs and bespoke gazebos was this month awarded £4,322 to buy garden furniture made from recycled plastic for the same cottages.

Other decision meetings closed to press and public include the approval by Cllr Pam Palmer, that champion of transparency, of changes to the council's policy on covert surveillance under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, usually known as RIPA. RIPA is one of those draconian pieces of British legislation which give public bodies sweeping powers to snoop on the public, and it has been widely abused by the police and local authorities.

All we are allowed to know here is that a meeting took place, lasting 25 minutes, and that changes to policy as outlined in a report were approved. We do not know what the report said or what changes Pam signed up to.

Cllr Pam Palmer, Chair of the Carmarthenshire Community Safety Partnership with the Halloween posters that are available for download

Crowning all of this twilight activity are the pre-meeting meetings of the governing Executive Board. These are also held behind closed doors, and if any records exist, they are not published.

This is perhaps fortunate because if minutes or other records of the pre-meeting meetings existed, they could well shed some uncomfortable light on matters including the notorious decision to implement the unlawful pensions tax dodge arrangement for the chief executive. The official minutes of the public meeting recorded only that the Board had noted certain changes to HMRC rules. What discussion actually took place on this at the pre-meeting meeting and who was in attendance, we will probably never know.

To demonstrate his commitment to openness and transparency, Kevin Madge is very proud of his Executive Board roadshows, where members of the public and press are invited to gaze admiringly as the scripts produced by the pre-meeting meetings are acted out for all to see in a show of Supreme Soviet-style self congratulation and unanimity.

This blog will return to the workings of the Advisory Panel in due course.


Redhead said...

If people understood just how many meetings are secret, unaccountable and un-minuted in councils there would be a riot.

Increasingly, and one has to assume with some central direction because it is so widespread, public meetings of councils are now simply there to "note" scanty reports about secret subjects and to rubber stamp decisions made behind closed doors. Add to that an increasing tendency to squeeze out public speaking and we are in (not approaching) a dictatorship.

All made possible by people not interested in knowing what is going on but just reacting (briefly) to scandals which do manage to break cover.

We need a 60s style revolution but we can't look this time to our debt-ridden and cowed students. Oh well, baby boomers to the barricades - again.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps Red Head you should read about the administration of Communist Russia before you compare the open government of democratically elected UK Careful or the State Secret Police will have you transferred to the Gulags of Hirwaun or the frozen hell that is Rhyl

Redhead said...

I had the dubious pleasure of visiting Communist Russia in mid-winter in 1976 and I have fond memories of me and my luggage being lengthily searched on my way out in case I was carrying anti-Soviet literature - iat least no-one pretended that the system was democratic as they do in CCC!

Anonymous said...

i worked for CCC for 2.5 years, but left a year ago, because I could not continue to let the people who paid my wages have a service which was under par, with staff being well over paid in the CE department especially to make coffee and fetch flowers for meetings. I left rather than whistleblowed on the system as i need to work and needed to move to my current position with a reference, I took a pay cut of approx £4K per annum, but at least i have self respect and am safe in the knowledge that i am not being asked in my new job to cover up - yes thats right cover up serious issues of concern. The LA do not take people's views or consider the impact on people it serves it has an agenda to protect its own, Redhead 12.00 is totally correct, the secret meetings taking place and no records are hourly occurances within the organisation.