Sunday 31 May 2015

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose?

Carmarthenshire County Council has a new look. Plaid Cymru has replaced Labour as the leading coalition party with the Affiliated Independents. Their mission statement is to bring CCC up to a high standard of openness and transparency; take that with as many grains of salt as you deem fit.

Carmarthenshire County council is run on the Executive Board System, much like the Westminster and Assembly governments. A small group of elected members make all of the general management and financial decisions. They do submit big things, the budget being the biggest one, for general approval by all the councillors, but a lot can be hidden in detail. Some things are just plain hidden.

The two unlawful payments in Carmarthenshire found by the Wales Audit Office were approved by the Executive board.

The Council Executive wanted to get around the fact that any arm of government, councils included, cannot use libel actions against their critics. This is obviously to preserve free speech. The Executive board at CCC were persuaded that a legal loophole existed, so they backed the chief executive to sue one critical blogger as their proxy to shut her up (and, presumably, to make an example of her).

The first one was presented to the Council, not hidden, but misrepresented. I suspect that the Executive Board had a moment of collective madness. Either because they were lazy and overwhelmed by their hatred of bloggers criticising their actions, or because they trusted the chief executive so overwhelmingly they did not read the legal report by independent legal expert Mr Goudie, blindly accepting the officer's claim that it gave the green light to their actions.

Had they actually read the report they would have realised that it did not endorse this action, in fact it gave the opinion that this tactic was never likely to be justified. However, the Chief executive and the executive board presented this as a legal and reasonable course of action and like sheep they all followed, trusting that they could not have been told barefaced lies by their most senior officers and leading councillors. I do wonder how much they can be blamed, after all, I am a former shepherd myself, and I know exactly what happens to sheep who don't docilely comply with their masters.

In the second case, it was a secret pay rise for the Chief Executive. In this case the executive members appear to have been aware that they were doing something rather naughty. The decision to give Mr James an extra payment on top of his salary was completely hidden despite the fact that to push it through all of the executive must have been complicit.

Cllr Meryl Gravell, was the leader of the Council at the time of the decisions and the chair of these meetings. Meryl knew that she had secretly given Mr James a pay rise of public money around 30k. It is impossible, given her position and authority, that she could not notice. She was therefore primarily responsible for both the unlawful payments.

Plaid has agreed to give the independents half of the Executive board seats even though their own group membership is much bigger than the Affiliated Independents. They have also agreed to accept all of the AI's sitting exec members, including the formidable Mrs Gravell. Plus ça change?

The new Plaid leader, Emlyn Dole, has made a lot of his policy to promote honesty, openness and accountability. So obviously we won't be expecting to be having any more unlawful payments as long as he is kept in the loop. I'm hoping that the Plaid executive members will be less open to being fooled and manipulated than their Labour counterparts and that they can keep the AI in check. Good luck to them!

Tuesday 19 May 2015

Power and Responsibility

All democratically elected people, MP's,AM's ,MEP's and Councillors should be representatives of the people. The people vote for them and then they theoretically at least, use their power as elected members for those people they represent. Too often they wield the power for someone else and sometimes someone else is running the show for them.
Part of the problem is the civil service, from the humble Parish council Clerk to the cabinet office in Westminster, Civil servants can support or obstruct elected representatives, often a bit of both. If you want to do something that does not threaten their power and their status that's fine. If  you have the gall to try to change something or accomplish something contrary to their own interests or views, you might be in trouble.

Civil servants of course should be just that. Advising elected members in order to facilitiate their work for their electorate. Many are humble and helpful people taking great pride in their efficiency, courtesy and their important jobs serving the citizens of this country.

Others are not so benign. Representatives can be manipulated, intimidated and steered away from what they originally wanted. Public officials can be bullied themselves into going along with the flow by their superiors. Underlings who whistle blow generally lose their careers by being persecuted in various ways, their disclosures usually being lost in a sea of disciplinary procedures, counter accusations and even suggestions of mental illness ,selfish and even criminal motivation. I've experienced it myself in the NHS and seen it happen in my own Carmarthenshire County Council.

One of the nastiest features of this corruption of public service is the practice of using spin, threats and many evil arts to prevent mistakes being found out and their perpetrators brought to account.

The most awful case I've been personally involved in was the case of a young woman the welsh public services ombudsman refers to as H in his report. Its a public document, I will be happy to send it to anyone who wishes to request a copy from me [].

The story has recently been mentioned in the Carmartheshire Herald [May 15th 2015]. 5 years ago a young woman with autism, severe learning difficulties, cerebral palsy and unable to speak, was taken into council care after accusations by her carers that she had indicated to them on a letter board that she had been sexually abused and prostituted by her parents. Despite for some years having been  formally assessed as having the communication and social skills of a small child, social services officers accpted the complaint at face value. They failed to be concerned that someone with severe learning difficulteies suddenly could communicate as an articulate adult. They did not check that the communication between H and her carers was real.

H's mother had just told the carers that she did not want them to continue with H. Money has gone missing from H's purse without explanation and the carers were reluctant to take her to the local college she had previously attended. They had only been H's carers for a few weeks and had no tuition in communicating with her.

H was using facilitied communication [FC]at home, on a letter board, a technique not allowed as evidence in law. This is because the user's hand can be easily manipulated rather than assisted. There have been many cases of it being used to make false allegations, especially in the USA. After a police investigatoin found no evidence the parents were still kept on police bail, apparently at the request of  social services as the Council confidently continued to  investigate and hopefully prove their case sufficently to keep H in care. Finally an expert in autism and communication was engaged, and assessed H with her carers. Although H could communicate with Professor Howlin at the level of a young child, it was found she not communicate at all with her carers. She could not have made any complaint to the carers.

Unable to accept this, the council officers, I am told, asked the London based expert to come up to Carmarthen to explain it all to them. In the meantime arrangements were being made to give H a foster placement out of county where it would be difficult for her parents to trace her.

Early in this case the Executive Board member for Health and Social Care the elected councillor responsible for social services, called me in to her office, She had been advised by her officers to tell me to stop supporting the family and asking quaestions. When I asked her if she knew anything about the details of the case ,she did not. However, she had been told that the case was horrendous and clearly given the impression the parents were guilty. Another Counicllor was also similarly warned off. Neither of us took the advice but I'm sure many would have.

 The Council paid a psychiatrist, Dr Rowan Wilson, with no knowledge of FC or autism to assess H. He declared her to have adult capacity on the basis of her carer's assisted communication.She could now chose where she lived. H was said to have indicated that she did not want to see her parents and was happy to stay in her care home, Ty Hendy. H therefore stayed in a care home and her parents were not allowed to see her. He was subsequently reported to the GMC by H's parents . They found him guilty of misconduct. I believe he may be the only person to date to face any disciplinary action in this case.
Almost 6 months after H had been taken a care worker at her care home warned her parents that her foster placement was imminent. The Social Workers still insisted that she indicated she did not wish to see her father but said H was inclined to see her mother, A contact visit was arranged.

Myself and the 2 other county councillors who had supported the family over the months did not trust our own Authority to do the right thing and return H home. As H was still regarded by CCC as having adult capacity we had a window to rescue H. At the meeting in a cafe ,2 of us happened to be present and witnessed H responding to her mother by spelling out that she wanted to go home. Invited to do so, she got up and followed her mother out, into the family car and went home. I gently reminded the social workers present that she had, in our opinion, adult capacity and was simply going home with her mum. Soon after the Social work department decided that she really didn't have the capacity to make decisions and asked repeatedly to be admitted to the family home so that an assessment of  H could be done to decide her future placement..

 Naturally, the family had lost all trust in the local social work department and aranged for a senior independent social worker from aoutside the area to visit. He  found the standard of care given to H by her parents was excellent.. H has been at home since and has become a much happier person, in contrast with the stressed and fearful young woman she was when she first returned.

I really believed and still do, that my Council's Social Work Department were so concerned about saving themselves  the embarassment of admitting a mistake and making an appology that they were prepared to break up a family permanently. I do wonder how many other families have not been so lucky.? H's retired parents had a professional background, some savings to pay lawyers with, good knowledge about FC and were fortunate to find 3 County Councillors who would support them against their own Authority.

H's parents suffered apallingly, constantly anxious, and under terrible stress. For almost 6 months they were not sure as to whether they would see their child again. It pains me to recall how evident their distress was. This is an extreme case as to how far people in authority will go to hide their own shortcomings, It should never have happened.

 4 years on, my council has still not settled the case for damages to H's parents although instructed to do so by a judge.I'm told that documentation needed to close the case is yet to be released by the council and is still awaited by H's parents' lawyers.  After a settlement H's parents will be free to speak about their experience. Do they have to wait for every employee involved to retire or move on, to spare their blushes ?

I have been asking for a long time for the  County Council Health and Social Care Scrutiny Committee to discuss the Ombudsman's report on this case and check that the reccomendations have been implemented. The Council's Head of Law claims we are not allowed to do this. The committee chair feels that it is unecessary to do so. Granted, we don't actually scrutinise much and officially none of us have been informed of this case.

Yesterday I spoke again to theH&SC committee chair who siad she could not see what we would achieve by discussing this case. The Ombudsman had said it all, and she was confident that our officers would not make the same mistake twice.I reminded her that the only reason she knew about the case is because I'd sent her the report. Once more she promised to look into whether or not we are allowed to discuss it.

 I think we could do with some urgent openness and accountability here. It is not just one catalogue of errors that concerns me but the whole culture of reacting to bad news by secrecy and denial. Hiding the truth only perpetuates the injustice and may invite a repeat performance.

Sian Caiach

Thursday 14 May 2015

A bonfire of the Vanities?

Carmarthenshire council is in upheaval. On Monday evening [11th May] the ruling Labour Group toppled its own leader, Cllr Kevin Madge. Kevin, by all accounts a basically decent bloke, had consistently failed to stand up to senior Independent Councillors and Senior Officers and may have been quite a liability on the doorstep in the general election and rumoured to have been sent home to lie low rather than campaign with the Labour Candidates.

 The new Labour leader, Jeff Edmunds, is a much more plain speaking and formidable character, notably with form for actually standing up to Carmarthenshire County's Chief Executive, Mark James, on one or two occasions. From personal experience I can tell you that this is not a profitable move career-wise, and may well be indicative of that most crippling of defects a Carmarthenshire County Councillor can posses: a conscience.

Jeff also has a habit of exhibiting honesty and transparency. His current post is executive board member for finance. He is incicdentallly, also a distant cousin of mine, my mother being a member of the same branch of the Edmunds family

After I had requested information from him on how a council asset had been sold for £850,000 with the county only receiving a quarter of the proceeds, he kindly spilled the beans on the deal. Due to the intervention of Mr James, the lion's share of a car park sale [land owned by CCC, leased by the Scarlets] was given to the Scarlets to clear some of their debts. Jeff and the officers concerned were apparently overruled and hundreds of thousands which could have bolstered council services were spent to recoup the Scarlets Rugby Region shop fitting expenses!

By Wednesday afternoon, May 13th, the new potential leader was apparently unacceptable to Labour's council coalition partners, the redoubtable Affiliated Independents. This group is a mixture of councillors who have a right wing bent and whose personal political ideologies seem to range from  "don't know" through degrees of neoliberalism to aggressive neofuedalism. They have had, up to now, impressive loyalty to each other and the Chief Executive. Some might argue this defeats the point of voting for an independent candidate over a controlled political party with an agenda and strict allegiances, but that is a post for another day. I suspect they had some serious reservations about Jeff. Honesty is a dangerous habit in Carmarthenshire and perhaps he was not trusted to cover their backs?

Perhaps that is unkind. I do tend to assume the worst of some of my right honourable colleagues, (with good reason, as many residents of the county they have been inflicted upon would likely agree) but they are surely not always driven by corruption or self-centredness. Perhaps this particular decision was based more on mere pettiness or even a genuine mass conversion to the Nationalist cause.

In any case, it seems a deal was done for Plaid Cymru's group leader, Emlyn Dole, to lead the council in coalition with the Affiliated Independents. Plaid have 29 councillors, the AI, 21. I have no idea why or how but the details will doubtless emerge over the next few days. Who gets the Plaid executive posts will show the direction of travel. Politically this group of Plaid Councillors has views spread out from the political centre left to centre right and from primarily culturalist to reasonably inclusive.

All will be revealed soon. If you live in Carmarthenshire I recommend stocking up on aspirin.

Sian Caiach

Tuesday 12 May 2015

Elections and Governments

Our first try at a Westminster election was not very impressive. However, a lot of lessons were learned and any future attempts will benefit from that. Labour won well due to a well respected and hard working MP. Plaid in second place fought hard and UKIP and the Conservatives had a good showing. Considering our severe financial constraints I think we did well but we must seriously fund raise if we are going to fight any more constituency or regional elections and not simply have a "whip round" for funds as we need them. Many thanks for those who have donated to us. Also for the first time People First / Gwerin Gyntaf has a bank account and paypal account!

For you political pundits, we had 1,1% of the vote with 407, close to the average independent/microparty vote of 430. Here are full results courtesy of Wikipedia.

General Election 2015: Llanelli [10][11][12][13][14][15][16]
LabourNia Rhiannon Griffith15,94841.3−1.1
Plaid CymruVaughan Williams8,85323.0−7.0
UKIPKenneth Denver Rees6,26916.3+13.5
ConservativeSelaine Saxby5,53414.30.0
Liberal DemocratCen Phillips7511.9−8.5
GreenGuy Martin Smith6891.8N/A
People FirstSiân Mair Caiach4071.1N/A
TUSCScott Jones1230.3N/A
Labour holdSwing−2.3

The UK result was of course a majority for the Conservatives who came 4th in Llanelli.

Many thanks to all the people who voted for me, put out leaflets for me and supported me through the weeks of the campaign, especially when my accident in January meant I lost my mobility and good looks for some time. Also deep gratitude to those who donated money to the campaign.

Tuesday 5 May 2015

Election 2015 - Myself in one minute.

On Thursday 30th April we completed the last of five parliamentary candidate hustings in Llanelli. The Liberal candidate has been a no show, without so much as a leaflet, but all the other candidates have got to the majority if not all of the meetings. All of the active candidates are articulate and quite presentable, a big change compared to what I'm used to in the county council. Nice to see so many people interested and attending but in every case most of the audience seemed made up of Labour, Plaid and other party supporters rather than the undecided. With both parties apparently believing that I am running purely to deliberately and maliciously steal their votes in order to help the other, the atmosphere has been interesting to say the least.

Much of the campaign has polarised between Plaid and Labour with UKIP confident of a good third place. With our meagre resources, we have used the free postal facility to send a modest leaflet to every house and business in the constituency, but had to find the money for 39,500 leaflets, around a thousand pounds in total. Many thanks to all who have contributed and are still donating.

There was no money for newspaper advertising and we are not big enough to qualify for the party political TV slots - where the filming is at your expense but the transmission free.

The nearest I got was a one minute slot for Carmarthenshire Radio/ Scarlet FM local radio this morning. It doesn't go out until the polls have closed on Thursday for their results programme at 10pm. My one chance at a party political broadcast! To save you the pain of waiting, here's the text.

Myself in one minute:

I'm Doctor Sian Caiach, 57,mother of four and Llanelli resident for 21 years.I came here to work at Prince Phillip Hospital as a Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon. I lost my career after whistle-blowing to expose greedy colleagues using public NHS money for themselves.

People first/Gwerin Gyntaf is a new movement advocating proper representation of voters with honesty and openness and real consultation.

The UK is economically and politically bankrupt. Too many politicians have lost the plot and put themselves and/or their parties before the people they represent.

People First Representatives promise to be honest and open, not join organised parties or coalitions and vote case by case on behalf of their own constituents, who they will consult before and not after decisions are made.

Support People First because we will support you!