Wednesday, 19 October 2016

The Countess and the Council

There is more than enough bad news about to keep us awake at night without worrying about flags and the flying thereof, but recent exploration by the Carmarthenshire Herald and Caebrwyn of Carmarthenshire County Council's policy on which flags should be flown from its buildings and when tells us a lot about the very peculiar and limited nature of the British version of democracy.

You can read the details for yourselves here, but in summary the council has produced an anorakish protocol setting out in mind-numbing detail rules governing the flying of flags and a procedure for dealing with requests from individuals or groups who would like the Council to fly flags for reasons other than those set out in the protocol.

No doubt, the chief executive would be able to explain what the difference is between a protocol and a policy, but it would seem that a protocol is a policy which does not need to be discussed or approved by elected councillors, and the bottom line seems to be that while anyone may submit a written request to fly a flag no less than 28 days before the appointed day, all such requests will be refused.

The justification for this blanket ban is that sending someone up on to the roofs of council buildings in Carmarthen, Llanelli and Ammanford costs money, which is true enough. But in a typically Jamesian flourish, the Herald was told, rather less truthfully, that the council had been forced to adopt this hardline approach because of the number of requests it was receiving.

Nobody, including the council, knows how many such requests were received before the protocol was written, and only two such requests have been received since then. Both of those were refused.

Appended to Mr James's protocol is a list of the days when the council is prepared to fly flags and go to the expense of sending people up on to the roofs of County Hall and the town halls in Ammanford and Llanelli.

It's pub quiz time.

Q1. Who is the Countess of Wessex?

Readers of the Daily Mail and Woman's Weekly will have no problem with that one, but I suspect that most of us would struggle to pick her out in an identity parade.

Q2. What is the connection between the Countess of Wessex and Carmarthenshire, and what has she done for this county?

 If you guessed "none" and "nothing", give yourself a pat on the back.

Q3. When is the birthday of the Countess of Wessex?

The correct answer to that one would scoop you the jackpot on Who wants to be a Millionaire?

Thanks to Wikipedia, Cneifiwr can reveal that she is married to a man who is currently ranked ninth in line to the throne. She used to work in PR and was accused in the press of using her royal connections to further her business interests. Her birthday is on 20 January, an event considered to be so important that flags are flown from County Hall in Carmarthen, as well as the town halls in Llanelli and Ammanford.

Actually, whoever has the job of running up and down all those stairs will get quite a lot of exercise to burn off those excess Christmas calories, because 9 January (birthday of the Duchess of Cambridge), 6 February (Accession to the Throne of Mrs W) and 19 February (birthday of Randy Andy) are also days on which Mr James, no doubt attended by Mrs Linda Rees Jones in a horsehair wig and the Municipal Twinset and Pearls, bearing the sacred protocol parchment, orders staff to shift their stumps and get up on to the roof.

Fourteen of the eighteen designated flag days are reserved for events in the Windsor clan's family calendar.

Birthday of the Duchess of Cambridge
9th January
Birthday of the Countess of Wessex
20th January
Her Majesty’s Accession
6th February
Birthday of the Duke of York
19th February
St David’s Day
1st March
Birthday of the Earl of Wessex
10th March
Commonwealth Day
second Monday in March
Birthday of Her Majesty the Queen
21st April
Europe Day
9th May
Coronation Day
2nd June
Birthday of the Duke of Edinburgh
10th June
Official celebration of Her Majesty’s birthday
13th June
Birthday of the Duke of Cambridge
21st June
Birthday of the Duchess of Cornwall
17th July
Birthday of the Princess Royal
15th August
Remembrance Day
second Sunday in November
Birthday of the Prince of Wales
14th November
Her Majesty’s Wedding Day
20th November
Eagle-eyed readers may have spotted that several key royal anniversaries are missing from the list, and presumably need to be added as a matter of urgency. Where is Charles' second son, Harry, little Prince George and Princess Charlotte, all of whom are higher up the pecking order than the Countess? And why is the Council not honouring Pippa Middleton, the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester or Princess Michael of Kent? Why can't we celebrate the date on which Fergie and Andy received a decree absolute ending their turbulent marriage?

Anniversaries and birthdays of the Windsor clan could fill pretty much the entire calendar and save us all a few hundred quid by leaving the Union Jack flying in permanent celebration.

Perhaps we should start a campaign.

Of the four days not reserved for the Windsors, Europe Day is probably not long for this world, and if you believe the Commonwealth is a significant and meaningful force in the affairs of humankind, you probably also talk to those fairies that live at the bottom of your garden.

At the Carmarthenshire end of the food chain, we have a protocol or policy which would appear never to have been submitted to democratic scrutiny, applied in typically autocratic fashion to honour non-entities with no connection to the county, while blocking requests for recognition of groups of people who live, work and contribute to the county.

That's local democracy for you.

The next links in the democratic hierarchy, the Assembly and the "Welsh Government" in Cardiff, are not actually in the loop at all. Flag flying is so important and so sensitive that control remains in Westminster, where responsibility lies with the Orwellian sounding Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

The DCMS issues guidance to local authorities on flag flying, and it is that guidance which is incorporated into Mr James's protocol.

Guidance, not Holy Writ.

So what would happen if Carmarthenshire County Council decided not to celebrate the birthday of the Countess of Wessex or other events in the Windsor family calendar and replace them with days to honour local charities and groups? Would the Lord Lieutenant roar up to County Hall in an ancient Rolls Royce with a detachment from the SAS to take control of our wayward council?

Probably not.

The worst that could happen in all likelihood is a few raised eyebrows, the rattle of teacups, some tut tutting in Establishment drawing rooms and a discreet black mark or two being entered against the names of senior council officers and councillors hoping to get an MBE, OBE or CBE.

But the real message sent out by the flag nonsense is the very limited nature of democracy in the UK with its unelected head of state, a vast and ever-expanding House of Lords and an unelected Prime Minister who would really like to bypass elected MPs and exercise the Royal Prerogative to determine our future.

Saturday, 15 October 2016


Just about anyone who was alive at the time will remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard the horrific news of the disaster which engulfed Aberfan on 21 October 1966.

I was 8 years old, and had spent part of the summer with my cousins not far from Aberfan. At school that day, the teacher turned on the radio for one of those BBC schools programmes, and she hushed us all as the news came through.

The thought of those children just like us in a school not very different to ours was the most terrible and frightening thing I had heard in my short life up to then, and the memory of that day has stayed with me.

What I would not have known or understood at the time was what had caused the disaster and what followed it, although through the years some of the missing pieces in the jigsaw fell into place. For most of us, therefore, Huw Edwards' account on S4C (available for a short while here) of the official inquiry brought matters sharply into focus. An English version of the programme is shortly to be aired on BBC1, in Wales at least.

Edwards was clearly angered and shocked as he re-lived the inquiry, and if you have not seen the programme, I would urge you to watch.

Singled out for their callous indifference to the sufferings of the village were the poisonous creep, George Thomas, then Labour's Secretary of State for Wales, and the cowardly, cruel and pompous Lord Alf Robens, former Labour cabinet minister and Chairman of the National Coal Board.

A very good account of the disaster and its aftermath can be found here. Suffice it to say both George Thomas, since exposed as a predatory paedophile, and Robens ended their lives laden with honours, darlings of the Establishment.

In a final flourish, Thomas chaired the campaign against Welsh devolution, where he rubbed shoulders with David Davies, the far right MP for Monmouth, and our current Secretary of State, Alun Cairns, who once described Italians in a radio broadcast as "greasy wops" and a couple of weeks ago attacked Welsh speaking communities for cottage burning.

George Thomas, John Redwood, Alun Cairns to name but three - Wales has been very badly served by Westminster.

Robens' main concern in the aftermath of the tragedy was to refuse to accept any liability or responsibility for what had happened, and in that he was aided and abetted by George Thomas, presumably with the backing of Harold Wilson and the rest of the cabinet.

At Thomas's direction, funds to pay for the clearance of the tips were stolen from money given by the public to help the victims, and Aberfan had to wait 40 years to get the money back under a devolved Welsh administration, although even then there was no official admission that this was the money which had been stolen all those years previously.

Admirable and passionate though Huw Edwards' programme is, it contains one very serious flaw. Time and again he says that attitudes have changed and that nothing like this could happen today.

He could not be more wrong.

In the 50 years since 116 children and 28 adults were killed at Aberfan, we have seen Bloody Sunday, Hillsborough and Orgreave to name but a few of the most notorious injustices, and there have been countless other cases of official neglect, incompetence and callous indifference to the sufferings of victims of the state and large corporations.

Nobody lost their job as a result of Aberfan, nobody went to prison, nobody was fined. Those who bore ultimate responsibility were instead rewarded and honoured. The state-owned NCB, set up supposedly to be run in the interests of mining communities and the people in general, behaved no better than the worst of the old coal barons.

Thomas, Robens and the NCB fought the survivors every step of the way. Robens eventually apologised, but only when he knew it was too late.

Here is an extract from the same report referred to above, Aberfan: No End of a Lesson:

The insurance staff of the NCB told Robens that £500 per dead child was a 'good' offer, and that only the 'hard core' were agitating for more. On compensation to the victims, the Charity Commission intervened when it should not have done, and failed to intervene when it should have done. It tried to prevent the Disaster Fund trustees from building the arched memorial in Aberfan cemetery, and from making flat-rate payments to bereaved families: they must first satisfy themselves that bereaved parents had been 'close' to their deceased children.

In the sense that the tips have been removed and the mines closed, Huw Edwards is right that Aberfan could not happen again, but the culture of never apologise, never say you were wrong, never admit liability and never resign is every bit as alive today as it was in 1966.

The other lesson to be drawn from this, and something referred to only obliquely by Huw Edwards, is that belated and limited justice for Aberfan had to wait until the people of Wales were given a very restricted degree of say over the affairs of this country.

"Better Together" has never been better for Wales.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Muddled thinking - Pam Palmer speaks to the Nation

Language Police

One of the Twitter accounts followed by Y Cneifiwr is @YBeiroCoch ("the red biro"). Y Beiro appears to come to life only fitfully, usually to criticise and correct examples of sloppily written Welsh churned out by journalists, politicians and public bodies. Very occasionally, Y Beiro will take to Twitter to congratulate someone for getting it right, a fate which probably makes the targets squirm even more than when they are being pilloried.

For example, Golwg360 was praised earlier this year for remembering that, correctly, 'last year' is y llynedd, rather than plain old llynedd, and Y Beiro reproduced a screenshot to prove it. Unfortunately, what grabbed  Cneifiwr's attention was not the headline selected by Y Beiro, but the one underneath:

Cyngor yn ymddiheuro ar ôl dangos pornograffi ar gam mewn angladd

(Council apologises after showing pornography by mistake at a funeral)

But, I digress.

It's fair to say that Y Beiro does not have many friends on Twitter. All we know about this individual is that he (and it is a he) is a teacher, and pretty much every time he writes something, down comes a storm of angry tweets about the Language Police.

For a short while, there was even an entertaining debate on whether his Twitter handle should really be "Y Feiro Goch". Are biros masculine or feminine? The answer is that they are grammatically hermaphrodite.

But Y Beiro has a point. Public bodies, journalists and politicians are in the business of communication, and we have a right to expect that they communicate clearly, whichever language they use.

His tip for writing good Welsh is to read good Welsh. Substitute English for Welsh, and his advice remains equally true:

If there is plenty of sloppy Welsh about, the law of averages dictates that there is infinitely more bad English, and it's not just minor infringements of usage, grammar, spelling and punctuation, such as saying 'less' when it should be 'fewer', or writing 'it's' (= it is) instead of 'its' (= belonging to it).


A particular bête noire of Cneifiwr's is 'iconic', a word which seems to be used only by lazy journalists and PR operatives.

Is County Hall in Carmarthen 'iconic', or does its lowering, grey bulk simply dominate the town's skyline, proof that questionable planning decisions were around long before Eifion Bowen?

Much worse than any of that is language so badly formulated that it does not make sense, or actually means the opposite of what the speaker or writer intended.

Oliver, the blind parrot

Anyone who has trawled through county council archives will have come across examples of badly written reports which leave the reader struggling to imagine what the author intended to say. That is at the serious end of the spectrum; at the other we have Carmarthenshire County Council's press office. Here's one of their gems from a couple of years back in a report about a blind parrot and an elderly husky (yes, really):

Oliver was going to euthanized when Fran and Mick adopted. Ion his 18 years and he has become a star of the South Wales dog circuit and is even mascot of the Sled Dog Society of Wales.

Not quite in the same league, but pants English nevertheless, is this item from a decision meeting held recently by Cllr Pam Palmer:

A statement of the bleedin' obvious followed by two lines of dodgy grammar and punctuation.

Since Pam Palmer is the sole member of the "Executive Board Member Decisions Meeting for Communities", it is only fair to assume that she read and approved this garbage.

A Woman for all Seasons

Pam Palmer is one of two Deputy Leaders of the Council, the other being Cllr David Jenkins. Unlike Cllr Jenkins (finance and budget) or any of the other members of the Executive Board below Council Leader, Pam Palmer does not have responsibility for a department, just a rag-bag of mostly meaningless titles, such as "Rural Affairs", "Community Planning", and ludicrously "Youth Ambassador".

Here's an example of what Pam has done for young people in Carmarthen.

In the past, her responsibilities included Food Hygiene, but that disappeared at some point, food hygiene presumably no longer being important.

A few years ago, another of her responsibilities was "modernising local government", which boiled down to vehemently opposing modernising local government and the filming of council meetings in particular. In Pam's view, councillors deserved the same protection as children from being filmed.

More recently, she was one of the most vocal critics of proposals to reform local government ("an abomination"), including restricting the number of terms councillors can serve in top jobs, opposition which probably had something to do with the fact that Pam has sat on the Executive Board for more years than anyone can remember.

She followed that up with a call for more younger people to stand for election as county councillors, apparently blind to the irony that she is leader of the "Independent" group on the council, an allegedly non-political political group whose average age must be hovering somewhere north of 70.

Pam did not specify how this admirable goal might be achieved, but the mass resignation of Independent councillors would go a long way to bringing in much-needed new blood. We might even get a Youth Ambassador who can vaguely remember what it is like to be young.

Money, money, money

Like most of our county councillors, Cllr Palmer is some way past retirement age, and so will enjoy benefits including a free bus pass, the winter heating allowance and a reduced TV licence fee. In addition to her pension(s), she was last year paid very handsomely for performing functions which would probably be within the capabilities of Oliver the blind parrot:

Source: Carmarthenshire County Council

The advantage of being Executive Board Member for Communities is that she gets to sound off about anything and everything, because what is local government about if not "communities"?

The world as Pam sees it

And sounding off in council meetings is what Pam Palmer is good at. If you like the sort of toe-curling, socially excruciating comedy of Alan Partridge, that is. Often bad-tempered, nearly always spectacularly graceless and invariably unprepared, off-the-cuff contributions which manage to cloak small-minded prejudice and complete ignorance of any given subject in a confused miasma of platitudes, delivered patronisingly from on high.

Harsh? Well, let's take this contribution from a recent Executive Board meeting where Cllr Palmer was giving her colleagues, council officers and the public her views on the Welsh language:

"I would ask everybody who is in the fortunate position of actually speaking Welsh, especially as a first language, to not make fun of people or correct them. I am aware of instances where e-mails have been sent....and have been sent back corrected."

"That does not send out the right message to people who are trying very hard to learn a language most of you will agree here, and everyone says is a very difficult language to learn - I found it extremely difficult."

Where to begin? Firstly, note the regally patronising, de haut en bas tone.

The Welsh language and the people who speak it have endured hundreds of years of persecution, ridicule and humiliation, and it is still going on. Since the Brexit vote, for example, Welsh speakers have been attacked on trains because idiots thought they were speaking Polish, and this week an English historian and broadcaster called Lucy Inglis launched a tirade of abuse against Wales, the Welsh and the language.

While writing this rant, Cneifiwr received a phone call from someone who was ordered out of a charity shop in St Clears for speaking Welsh. "I've told you before not to speak that language in here", she was told.

But in Pam's view, it's English speakers who need protecting.

The reality, and a large part of the problem facing Welsh, is that Welsh speakers have always been far too accommodating, switching to English to avoid making non-Welsh speakers feel uncomfortable. Dr John Davies, the historian, used to tell a story about elderly people in Ceredigion struggling to speak to each other in English on the phone because they thought the GPO, as it then was, would only carry messages in English, and anyway, it was "official", and official things had to be in English.

It's a phenomenon sometimes known as the "Welsh cringe".

Only Pam Palmer knows the truth about her own efforts to learn Welsh, but let's be kind and assume that the balance of probability is that she did not try very hard, rather than a lack of grey matter. A few years ago she referred in a council meeting to Machynlleth as "that town whose name I shall not endeavour to pronounce".

If she had been to a Welsh class, she would have mastered that by Lesson 2.

If she had made a serious effort to learn Welsh after living in a largely Welsh-speaking community for most of her adult life, she would know that Welsh learners really appreciate being corrected, sensitively if possible. It's the linguistic equivalent of being told that your flies are undone or your skirt is tucked into your knickers.

Where people learning Welsh have a right to feel aggrieved is when a Welsh speaker tells them "we don't say it like that", and then switches to English. If that happens to any readers learning Welsh, stand your ground and ask "how would you say that, then achan?"

And then Pam tells us that "most of us" will agree that Welsh is very difficult, before adding that "everyone" says it is very difficult. Which is it? Some, most or all?

A free grammar lesson

Learning any language presents difficulties. If you have ever tried explaining English to someone learning that language, you will know that English can be pretty challenging.

"Where's John?"

"He goes to school." 

It should really be "he's going to school", but in Welsh there is no difference. Mae e'n mynd i'r ysgol means he goes to school or he is going to school. And if you want to make it clear that John has departed and probably arrived at school by now, in English you have to change "is" to "has" and "goes/going" to "gone". In Welsh you simply replace that little 'n with wedi. 

Mae e wedi mynd i'r ysgol - He has gone to school.

Welsh is very different from English, true enough, but being different does not mean that it is more difficult.

Perhaps Pam should listen to her fellow Independent, Giles Morgan, who this week urged councillors in a different context to stick to the facts.

But then, Pam, that would mean that you would have to do your homework before sounding off, wouldn't it?

In the meantime, you talk about sending out the right message. Perhaps you, Deputy Leader no less, might want to consider what sort of message you have sent out to council staff, children going to Welsh medium schools, their parents and adults who are prepared to put in rather more effort than you did as they set about learning Welsh.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Something Nasty in the Wood Shed

The swallows have headed back to warmer climes; the kids are back at school; the shoplifters who keep local supermarket security staff busy have gone back to Walthamstow, Brum and Manchester; and Julian and Henrietta have loaded up the Range Rover, locked up the holiday home in Newport (Tudrath) and returned to Hampstead for the winter.

Not so the resident population of lesser spotted bloggers in Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire who spend their time rummaging through mouldering mounds of council documents in search of a tasty morsel or two. Currently they are in a feeding frenzy, having sniffed something which smells remarkably like rotting flesh emanating from the county halls in Carmarthen and Haverfordwest.

Can Cneifiwr resist the temptation to join in? Of course not.

What has got Caebrwyn, Old Grumpy and Jacob Williams sitting up and sniffing the wind is the long-running saga of huge EU funded grants dished out by Carmarthenshire County Council for schemes which were perhaps less about creating jobs, jobs, jobs for the many, and rather more about replenishing the bank accounts of a favoured few.

This blog first poked around in this particular wood shed back in 2014 (see Meryl's Millions here and here), and the press took a fleeting interest, only to be told that everything was absolutely fine and that there was nothing to see.

Here was the then deputy chief executive of Carmarthenshire, Dave Gilbert OBE, giving a master class in spin to the Western Mail in September 2014. His message boiled down to this:
  • The council had followed the rule book to the letter, and the Wales Audit Office had confirmed that, subject to a few suggestions about tightening up procedures, everything was tickety-boo.
  • The council would be setting up a working group to review procedures.
  • The council itself was squeaky clean, and was in fact so keen to be seen to be above reproach that it had referred itself to the WAO asking for suggestions as to how it could become even more squeaky clean.
The fact that the council and the WAO were still locking horns over the grants a year later, as is evident from Grant Panel minutes, suggests that Mr Gilbert was a little premature in making the first of these claims.

In March 2016, 18 months after Mr Gilbert told Shipton of the Mail that a working group was to be set up, Carmarthenshire Council Council's Grants Panel (more about this body in a moment) announced in minutes buried deep in the minutes of the council's Audit Committee that there was after all no need to set up a working group because WEFO (the Wales European Funding Office) had taken EU third party grant funding programmes away from Carmarthen:

"It was intended that a working group be set up to review the current third party grants process and to implement improvements. However, the Authority will no longer be administrating third party grants via European Funded Projects. These will be managed by Intermediary Bodies that have been approved by WEFO (WG, WCVA, DEST & SHELL)."
But it is the third of Mr Gilbert's claims which leave connoisseurs of spin gasping in admiration. The truth was that some senior figures in the council (the Director of Resources and a senior councillor) were so alarmed by what Meryl Gravell was up to that they had asked the WAO to take a closer look.

As Caebrwyn has noted on her blog, the idea that Carmarthenshire County Council would proactively go to the despised WAO in an exercise in self-improvement is comedy gold.

The Grants Panel itself is a no-go zone for our elected councillors. Requests from the Audit Committee to be allowed to send along its chair began while Plaid was still in opposition, and it took the Head of Law two years of agonised sleepless nights to conclude that the request was inadmissible.

Heaven forbid that anyone should get the idea that old accusations that Carmarthenshire County Council is officer-led are still valid, but scrutiny of a body responsible for handing out millions of pounds in grants is clearly not something for our elected representatives to worry their little heads about.

It may or may not be legally inadmissible, but politically allowing busybody councillors to go sniffing around her grant awards is the last thing that Meryl wants, and as she holds the balance of power between Labour and Plaid, it ain't going to happen. Besides which, Labour will want to tread very carefully because just about all of the bodies were buried on their watch.

Strangely, given the seriousness of concerns about grant awards, meetings of the Grants Panel invariably record that senior officers invited to take part in their meetings, including Chris Moore, the new-ish Director of Resources, never show up. Anyone with a suspicious mind might think they wanted to keep everything at arm's length for some reason.

Meanwhile, Old Grumpy has been doing his level best to try to dig into one of the grants approved in Carmarthen for an office block in Johnston in Pembrokeshire. A planned visit to County Hall in Carmarthen by Old Grumpy chaperoned by a council officer from Haverfordwest was vetoed, presumably by someone not a million miles from Mark James.

As Old Grumpy notes in his laconic way, if he were a conspiracy theorist, he might think that someone was trying to hide something.

The horse having galloped off into the sunset, the Wales Audit Office has decided to re-examine its stabling arrangements and change its approach to audits of this kind in future, placing greater weight on "outcomes". This would presumably mean that Meryl, Kevin Madge and others would no longer be able to claim that they had created huge numbers of jobs, safe in the knowledge that nobody could ever prove otherwise.

In reality, Brexit will mean that it is highly unlikely that there will be any more grant schemes for job creation schemes, genuine or otherwise.

Back at the ranch, attempts to get to the bottom of what happened in Crosshands, Johnston and elsewhere are continuing. As lesser spotted bloggers can testify, a useful sign for anyone interested in digging for old corpses in Carmarthenshire at least is old press releases announcing the presence at the scene of Meryl and her old friend Edwina Hart with large cheques in their handbags.

Here's a press release snapshot from March this year taken at Delta Lakes, for example:

This one is set to run and run.