Stamping on the lid…
An increasingly angry frustration simmered under the surface yesterday, October 9th, at Carmarthenshire County Council’s monthly meeting of the full council, which I watched via the webcast. I worry that webcasting reveals the machinations of the hierarchy in such a depressingly grey light that, come the first opportunity, the ‘cabinet’ will opt to stop the experiment.
Yesterday’s session was like watching an attack on a strongly defended castle. The Plaid Cymru members were the raiders, the Labour and Independent Party councillors were defending with all their strength and guile. Is this the best way to organise local government? I hope not, because the continuous warfare diverts energies away from the job in hand, of providing public services for the county’s residents.
Chairman Terry Davies (Labour, Gorslas) was determined for the camera to record only polite assents. “Less of this nonsense” he ordered when an undertone of dissent rumbled around the chamber, adding that goings on of the sort televised from the House of Commons would not be tolerated in Carmarthenshire.
The similarity between the stated positions of Labour and ‘Independent’ councillors is striking. Of course, in Carmarthenshire, ‘Independent’ does not mean independent. The Independents form a group or ‘party’. The current composition is Labour 22 seats, Independent ‘party’ 22 seats, genuine Independent 1 (John Paul Jenkins, Elli), Gwerin Gyntaf/People First 1 (Sian Caiach, Hengoed), and Plaid Cymru 28. Plaid Cymru is the largest group but Labour and the Independent ‘party’ form a coalition to keep Plaid councillors as far away from any decision making as they can, thus denying meaningful representation to many thousands of voters.
At the meeting yesterday, the coalition used its heavyweight presence to stonewall. Cllr Peter Hughes-Griffiths (Carmarthen Town North), leader of the Plaid group, put a motion of no confidence in the Welsh Government’s health minister Mark Drakeford, who had decided to downgrade the accident and emergency unit at Prince Philip Hospital, Llanelli, to a nurse-led unit. The Labour/Independent coalition countered with a watering-down amendment removing the ‘no confidence’ element.
Cllr Hughes-Griffiths was in no mood to agree to the amendment. “This council is suffering a great deal of shame these days and this is further shame,” he said sternly, reminding councillors that the most heavily populated area in the whole region covered by the Hywel Dda Health Board was losing its doctor-led accident and emergency service.
The far milder amendment, seeking further discussions with the Health Minister, was proposed by Cllr Tegwen Devichand (Labour, Dafen). She was supported by Cllr Sue Allen (Indpependent, Whitland), whose argument centred on the premise that “we can’t all have what we want”, and by Cllr Anthony Jones (Labour, Llandybie) who said that councillors are not the experts and should be guided by professionals in the NHS.
The efforts of Plaid Cymru councillors were to no avail. Cllr Jeff Owen (Tyisha) pointed out that forcing people to travel further to an open accident and emergency unit staffed by doctors was counter to the priority for us to reduce travel, fuel use and emissions from burning fuels. Cllr Gwyneth Thomas (Llangennech), said that the previous day the accident and emergency unit was overflowing with patients, and six ambulances carrying patients were waiting outside. The coming downgrade would endanger patients’ lives, she feared. Independent councillor Giles Morgan (Swiss Valley) spoke out against the party line and said there had been no consultation about putting nurses in charge of the unit, that the risk analysis had been poor, that the impacts on the ambulance service had not been considered, that according to the Welsh Government the downgrade would be only “probably safe”.
The votes were predictable. The amendment was approved and became the main motion, which was also carried.
The meeting continued on its pre-ordained path. Councillors with opinions counter to the received wisdom of the Labour/Independent ‘cabinet’ and the top officers were slapped down. Mansel Charles (Plaid Cymru, Llanegwad) was scathing about the council’s plan to close Llanfynydd Church in Wales Primary School. Cllr Charles, a school governor, highlighted a common practice to speed closures – to spread rumours of likely closure, so that parents do not choose the school for their children. “It’s a way of getting parents to close a school for the authority,” he said, and he called the council’s view, that the school was educationally unsustainable, a “disgusting slur”. Cllr Charles’s views were disregarded by Director of Education Rob Sully, in charge of the council’s ‘modernising education’ programme, which means fewer but larger schools, and long journeys imposed on children.
Right at the end of the morning – the county council holds meetings in daytime – Cllr Darren Price (Plaid Cymru, Gorslas) tried to raise an urgent item. He quoted rule 22.1 in the council’s constitution, allowing the suspension of standing orders, which would enable him to raise the urgent item.
Neither the chair, Cllr Terry Davies, nor the chief executive, Mark James, had any intention whatsoever of allowing standing orders to be suspended. The ‘urgent item’ would almost certainly be the finding of Anthony Barratt, auditor with the Wales Audit Office, that two payments relating to chief executive Mark James, an indemnity for a libel action against blogger Jacqui Thompson and cash instead of employer’s pension contributions, were unlawful. Linda Rees Jones, the council’s acting Head of Administration and Law, knew exactly what to do. She ruled that the council had to vote on whether to lift standing orders before Cllr Price could tell anyone what the urgent item was. Councillors voted against suspending standing orders. In a blink, the chief executive ended the meeting.
The lid was back on, but with steam escaping from the bubbling pot underneath.
by Pat Dodd Racher
More on the meeting itself at