Friday, 10 February 2012

To power...and beyond...

Interesting judgement today which ruled that a Council has no power under the Local Government Act to hold prayers as part of a formal council meeting. Religion aside, what I found particularly interesting was the judge's comment;

"The council has on two occassions by a majority voted to retain public prayers at it's full meetings. But that does not give it power to do what it has no power to do".

How Carmarthenshire might react to such heathenism I'm not sure, what would happen to a councillor who stood by his or her conscience and didn't take part in the prayers? and maybe even failed to stand to attention for the X Factor entrance of the Chair and Chief Executive? I dread to think, I suppose they would be ostracised like a sickly goose.

Sometimes, to give such actions a veneer of democracy a vote is called and the councillors, bombarded with legal jargon and stern instructions that they need to 'update the constitution in line with current legislation' will pass the new rule with no real knowledge as to whether it's entirely legal or not. Who would know? Who would dare challenge it? Who becomes accountable if the council is exceeding it's powers under the Act?

If, as appears to be the case in Bideford, it was the 'prayer slot' itself which was legally flawed, it didn't matter how many times the more god-fearing members made a majority vote in favour, it was beyond the power of the council, as a civic body, to hold prayers anyway - in other words, the council were acting 'ultra vires'.

Recently, Carmarthenshire council officers have been busy changing the rules without even a passing glance to council members, (or no further than the closet loyalists anyway) I am, in case you were wondering, thinking of the entry procedures to the public gallery. Clearly the Council are a little mixed up, excuses waver between 'fire regulations', 'everybody does it' and 'we've had a problem'. Sadly, the full council has not had a chance to even examine if these new rules are legal, never mind debate whether this is their preferred method of welcoming visiting residents.

The undertaking not to film, is couched in quasi-legal terms 'I hereby undertake..." giving it the added weight of a vague legal threat. Refusal to sign should not prevent access, that cannot be lawful. The added requirement to provide an address is just plain baffling - I can only imagine it is just in case there's a fire, the mortal remains of the bloggers and observers locked in the public gallery could be returned to the next of kin.  However, according to the Democratic Services Manager he shreds (yes, personally shreds) all the signed undertakings immediately after the meeting.

This raises another question which I enquired about at Wednesday's meeting, which is whether, under the Council's entry in the Data Protection Register it has a right to collect and hold this information about visitors to the public gallery. I had a response, with the various pertinent entries angrily highlighted in red - fair enough, but if they are so sure they are entitled to hold this information why the immediate shredding exercise after the meeting?

A small point maybe but as I mentioned in my previous post, I was refused a photocopy of my signed undertaking from Wednesday's meeting. I got in touch with the Democratic Services Manager to ask why. To be fair, he went to some trouble, and stretches of the imagination, to provide me with an answer. I would reply but the gentleman informed me on Wednesday that he is aware of 'blogsites' so I will assume he will read it online. The email (or "E Mail") exchange is here;

To Democratic Services Manager,

Prior to yesterday's Council meeting I asked for a photocopy of the undertaking, the one which I had signed, the staff at reception said this would be fine and I offered to pick it up after the meeting.
When I returned to the desk I was told I was not allowed a copy, the staff could not give me a reason other than they were following orders.
Could you please explain why I couldn't have a copy? As I have previously been given a copy of an undertaking several months ago, and I offered to pay for this one, clearly it is not a matter of general practice to refuse such a request. The undertaking does, after all, contain my personal details.

I look forward to your prompt reply
Yours sincerely
Jacqui Thompson

and here's the reply, with my comments in blue;

Dear Mrs. Thompson

Thank you for your E Mail.

Unfortunately the staff working at reception yesterday were relatively inexperienced and should not have indicated that they would make a copy of the undertaking that you signed.
Oh, good idea. Blame the staff. Struggling to carry out these daft orders and deal with bewildered members of the public faced with an array of forms and 'rules' they must read and sign; and what on earth was said to the pleasant lady who had toddled off to get me a copy? 

You will be aware that the reception area is very busy and particularly so immediately prior to meetings of the Council and its Committees.
I have seen no more than about 8 people waiting in the reception area on a council meeting day, usually it's less. Before all this, everyone could enter through the external door of course and wouldn't have to loiter in the lobby waiting for the guards.

On such occasions the priority is to deal with visitors as they arrive in order to avoid delays and        inconvenience.
Really? there were no delays or inconvenience before the council themselves instigated these restrictions.

The Council does not provide members of the public with a free photocopying service and there is no photocopying facility readily available to reception staff on the ground floor.  The reception area has to be fully manned to avoid disruption and delays for visitors and to deal with the thousands of telephone calls they receive each day,  it is for these reasons that I informed the staff concerned that they should not provide you with a photocopy of your undertaking.
I offered to pay for it and I had given the staff three hours to provide me with the copy - to which they'd happily and pleasantly agreed. 'Fully manned'? Believe me, it's hardly the nerve centre of NASA.

You are quite right in stating that the undertakings include personal details of visitors and it is for this reason that I personally retain the copies and destroy them immediately after the conclusion of the meeting by shredding.
I have an image here of the gentleman surrounded by confettii-like clouds of shredded undertakings.

On your next visit to the Public Gallery in County Hall, if you require a copy of the undertaking that you sign, we will arrange for you to sign 2 copies of the undertaking with the intention of letting you retain one for your own use.
I beg your pardon?

This will be a far more efficient and economical way of complying with your request.”
Efficient and economical? Are we still 'reducing the burden of administration then'? Are we still on the same planet? And isn't it common practice to end an email with 'yours sincerely' or similar, rather than quotation marks?


Cneifiwr said...

Great post - it just goes to show the utter pettiness of the council. But what is not petty is the insulting and intimidating spirit which lies behind the procedures. By insisting that people sign these statements and are forced to provide their names and addresses in order to gain access to a public meeting, the message is, "We know who you are, we know where you live, and we are watching you."

Cneifiwr said...

And another thing.... I don't think that the Bideford ruling will have any impact on Carmarthenshire because it simply bans prayers from being on the formal published agenda, and prayers are not on the published agenda of meetings. Of course, the same goes for other matters too, including the decision to fund...but let's not go there.

lesleywilliams41 said...

I'm afraid I refused to stand up for the entrance into the council chamber of our glorious leaders (what exactly is the point? - a sign of respect?) and neither did I stand, or acknowledge, the prayer as I'm a committed atheist. Consequently I was subjected to some very unchristian filthy looks from surrounding councillors who were obviously mentally consigning me to eternal hell and damnation. Having witnessed the appalling way in which Cllr Caiach was treated during the meeting, I am disgusted by the amount of bullying and intimidation that occurs - prayer notwithstanding!

caebrwyn said...

Yes, I did notice prayers were not on the formal published agenda in Carmarthenshire and, yes, I was trying to make a wider point. Although, personally, I do not believe a (minuted) call for divine guidance in their work should be part of the meeting at all, but that's my view.

Mr Mustard said...

Anyone who wants to is welcome to use my name and address or act as Mrs Mustard using a name of your choice:

Mr Morris Mustard
20 Strafford Rd

There is nothing to stop you changing your name before the meeting and changing it back afterwards.

Have fun.

Mrs Angry said...

may I just say that Mr Mustard is always trying to persuade ladies that they should call themselves Mrs Morris Mustard: watch out girls ...

baarnett said...

"There is nothing to stop you changing your name before the meeting, and changing it back afterwards."

Equally well, I believe there is no need to "change your name", and that merely lying is perfectly lawful (because it is not unlawful, since you are not seeking to commit fraud).

If the council allows in a Mr John Smith, but not a Mr M. Mouse, it would need to be able to defend itself, in a civil action that Mr Mouse might want to bring, for damages.

Martin Milan said...

I admire the chutzpah!

Anonymous said...

oh for goodness sake.. here we have a council that advocates recycling (for whatever purpose) and cut down on co2 emissions, reducing the carbon footprint... and here we have an A4 sheet of paper, printed with ink, photocopoied or whatever.. supplying a plastic clip-on wallet with another smaller piece of paper inside it....

and all along they shred the paper...putting another footprint on the old co2 stakes, 'doh (anon2)