Friday 23 August 2013

Daftarrest: new developments, as the Welsh blogger story continues

 The arrest of blogger Jacqui Thompson in 2011: pic Alex Murray Smith

Time for a break from the Capitalisation of Broken Barnet, and a chance for us to take a trip west, far west, to South Wales, and our friends in Carmarthenshire, which has a local authority that has so much in common with the transparency-averse Tory council here: namely a deep rooted fear of scrutiny, and a culture of entrenched hostility to the local blogosphere. 

Yes, to begin at the beginning, then: this is the council which so resented the attempt by one blogger to record a few minutes of a public meeting with her phone that it called in police to have her arrested, put in handcuffs, and taken to a police station miles away, where she was obliged to remove her shoes and socks, and even her wedding ring, and sit in a cell for hours until she agreed not to repeat her perfectly lawful act of filming. It was perhaps the Miranda moment, in citizen journalism, if you like.

No explanation has ever emerged from the police as to why they felt were entitled to treat Jacqui Thompson, the blogger known as 'Caebrwyn', in this way, despite the widespread outrage that ensued in the press, local and national, and the clear disapproval of Secretary of State Eric Pickles, who has continued to speak out against councils who treat their residents and citizen journalists with such contempt, barring them from recording meetings of their elected representatives in clear breach of his own departmental guidance.

Pickles has reinforced this guidance with increasing impatience, and there have been indications that if pushed, he will introduce legislation to enforce the right to attend and record such events: but so far he has held back from such a step. 

Yesterday, however, he issued another statement with an uncompromisingly outspoken  heading:

Abuse of state powers as councils threaten bloggers with arrest 
We read that Pickles thinks that: 

 'freedom of speech and independent journalism were under attack in local government' ...

He listed examples of councils which are continuing to oppose 'an independent press' and were defying his recently repeated demand that councils 'open up to overt filming and social media'. He added:

The Welsh government has also rebuffed the suggestion that the same approach should be taken to open up council meetings in Wales, as is being pushed in England. Welsh ministers have claimed that the interest in openness is “an unhealthy obsession” and a blogger in Carmarthenshire was arrested and handcuffed by the police for filming a council meeting.

Which brings us back, of course to the #daftarrest of Caebrwyn, blogger Jacqui Thompson.

Earlier this year, Jacqui's story was to take a new direction, and one which ended in the High Court. 

Following the arrest, the Chief Executive of the council, Mark James, who had been responsible for calling the police, had taken the unusual step of leaving a number of comments about Mrs Thompson on a blogpost by Martin Milan, the 'Mad Axeman' blogger, which Jacqui felt left her with no option but to bring libel proceedings against him.

In a controversial move by the council, Mr James was given financial support by the authority to cover his legal costs, and the instigation of a counter claim against Mrs Thompson. 

At the High Court hearing, Mr James was asked about his presence at the meeting where this was approved, a meeting where the public were excluded, and he was asked if he thought this created a lack of transparency. 

He claimed he could not recall if he was present, and then agreed that he could see why it might be a matter of public concern, as recorded here:

Mrs Angry understands that the matter of the granting of the indemnity is currently the subject of a complaint to the Audit Commission by a resident of Carmarthenshire.

The libel case was heard in February, in a hearing lasting six days, which was reported by Mrs Angry in a series of posts, beginning with  

The finding by Judge Tugendhat, in favour of Mr James, was a devastating blow for Mrs Thompson, and left her facing an enormous bill to cover the awards and costs of the case. 

Carmarthenshire County Council CEO Mark James (left) wins his case

Although in hindsight perhaps Jacqui was ill advised to pursue the case, and certainly had made comments which were not supported by evidence, Mrs Angry was not alone in feeling shocked by the harshness of Mr Justice Tugendhat's judgement, and the severity of his many of his observations.

It had been fairly obvious, however, from the beginning of the trial that, for a number of reasons, Jacqui Thompson faced an impossible task in convincing the court of the merits of her defence, and that perhaps the scales of justice were unfairly weighted against her. 

It is arguable, for example, that too much emphasis was allowed in regard to an earlier disagreement with council officers which led to a previous lost libel action, and featured a curious council document whose origin has never been explained.

The prosecution successfully argued that she had been guilty of an unwarranted campaign of harassment directed personally at Mr James, and presented the blog she writes as being not focused on issues of public interest, but one written from a sense of grievance, and as a form of revenge for her own past confrontations with the local authority.

At the very beginning of the hearing Mrs Angry had remarked that many citizen journalists begin their activities in this way, from a personal experience leading to a sudden immersion in the mire of local politics, a baptism of fire, which evolves into a wider and perfectly valid closer interest in the machinations of their local democratic process, and this is undoubtedly true in the case of Jacqui Thompson. 

Since the early days of her blog, she has raised and investigated a significant number of issues of immense importance to her community, being one of only a few brave individuals who try to hold Carmarthenshire County Council to account, including a handful of elected representatives who do not conform to the institutionalised complacency of the majority of councillors who represent the voters and tax payers of the area.

Carmarthenshire has a local press which continues to demonstrate a marked reluctance for running any stories critical of the local authority, and this has created a seriously dangerous vacuum in the process of  of oversight of the local democratic process.

And Caebrwyn is most certainly not the only resident of Carmarthenshire to raise concerns about the planning department: her frustration over her own experiences may have led her into trouble, but it is interesting to note that local MP Jonathan Edwards had also tried to raise his own questions regarding this issue with the Audit Commission, a point which was mentioned to Mr James in court.  

I'm sorry, he replied: I can't recall, and the matter was not pursued.

One of the most interesting and important subjects raised by the Caebrwyn blog, and indeed by the marvellous Y Cneifiwr, is one which continues to attract attention outside of Wales, reported in Private Eye, and by BBC Wales and elsewhere, is the story of Towy Community Church, and the relationship it has formed with Carmarthenshire County Council.

Towy church is part of the evangelical Christian movement, and a member of the Evangelical Alliance, which holds 'homoerotic practice' to be inherently sinful, and believes that those who reject Christ are destined for 'eternal punishment'. 

Towy has had substantial financial support and encouragement from Carmarthenshire council, with a loan of £270,000 - a loan agreed in closed session - and the grant of a site worth £750, 000, to help fund the development of a scheme which incorporates a bowling alley, cafe, and an auditorium/conference centre, which may or may not be used for worship.

The church's development scheme is also in receipt of substantial grants from the Lottery and the Welsh Assembly, but clearly the local authority, despite the pressures on funding in this time of austerity, feels that it is entitled to generous support from local tax payers.

Breathless praise for Towy church came from former leader Meryl Gravell, who announced that if it was not for such bodies, 'our social services bill would be even more. It's the biggest social enterprise in Carmarthenshire. It's what we need more of in the future.' 

And here is the real issue of concern: evangelical churches are deliberately targeting the opportunities created in this age of funding cuts for charities and voluntary bodies to step in and offer to take over some of the functions and service provision formerly and properly the responsiblity of local authorities. They undoubtedly see this role not as more traditional charities like the Salvation Army do, a duty and an unconditional act of Christian love, but most importantly as a way of increasing membership of their own churches. 

Despite the uncompromisingly judgemental, and potentially discriminatory ethos of the beliefs and practices of the evangelical movement, many councils are happy to surrender all sense of conscience and consideration of the impact on issues of equality, and accept the help offered by such groups. In Barnet our Tory Council has given grants to the Jesus House foundation, for example, through a 'Big Society' scheme which appears not to extend any robust scrutiny of the way in which the generosity with our tax funded handouts is used.

Towy church has offered to provide services to the community in the form of foodbanks, furniture recycling - and debt counselling, via 'CAP: Christians Against Poverty'.

Readers of this blog may recall that Mrs Angry reported, in utter amazement, that here in Broken Barnet, our social housing body, Barnet Homes, has offered support  - here in one of the most culturally diverse boroughs in London, with a multiplicity of faiths, including the largest Jewish community in the UK, and an increasingly large muslim population - to struggling tenants affected by the benefit cuts and bedroom tax in the form of 'help' from Christians Against Poverty. *Update - see how this scheme works in Barnet, with council officers being trained by this group:

This is the body that was obliged to leave a national agency, AdviceUk, because of allegations of an 'emotional fee' of prayer that accompanied their debt counselling, and as reported here, CAP have boasted on their website of about 500 people becoming Christians through their 'Debt Help' work.

The dangers of allowing access to vulnerable people, without the safeguards of care guided by a real understanding of the needs of a diverse society and citizens of a range of sexual identities, faiths and cultures, are profoundly worrying.

Both Caebrwyn and Y Cneifiwr have written extensively about the Towy issue, and most recently in relation to a truly alarming aspect of this church: its reported links with 'Mercy Ministries', a n organisation which has been reported in the US and Australia as trying to treat vulnerable young women with eating disorders, unplanned pregnancies, self harming conditions and other problems with intensive bible study - and even exorcism - rather than psychological support.

Now we discover that Mercy Ministries are coming to Carmarthenshire: as the Church announced -

It is the vision of Towy Community Church to set up a Mercy Ministries house in Carmarthen to meet the needs of the community.

Read these posts by Caebrwyn and Y Cneifiwr:

and here 

But of course of equal significance is the very nature of the relationship which Carmarthenshire County Council has forged with Towy Church, and the way in which the details of the arrangements between the two partners in the bowling alley/auditorium scheme, and the approval of around £1.3 million in grants, loans and land deals, at a time when grants to secular bodies such as the Citizens Advice Bureau have been cut, have been shrouded in secrecy.

Jacqui Thompson's interest in this issue was dismissed by Mark James' counsel in court as being merely an excuse to target him for reasons of a sustained personal grudge. This is clearly, in Mrs Angry's view, and the view of many residents of Carmarthenshire, completely unfair, and the subject continues to generate much controversy in South Wales. 

Why was the £270,000 loan agreed in closed session? Whose idea was the development, and the land deal? How much funding has the Church itself raised towards the project? 

So many questions, unanswered.

And here is another list of questions, unanswered.

Let us return to the court room, and the second day of the libel hearing, reported here:  

Adam Speker, counsel for Mark James, suggests to Jacqui that she is someone 'intent on seeking revenge and pursuing your campaign', of an unjustified persecution of the authority and in particular the Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council, Mark James. The harsh tone of questioning has turned to Jacqui Thompson's coverage of the Towy story, and presented her this as evidence of unfair and personalised treatment of Mr James: 

"Mr Speker thought that she had suggested council members or officers were 'loyal followers' of the church. Jacqui denied this, saying she did not know of any who were such followers. When it was put to her that she had made insinuations that Mark James is a member, she denied this too and said she had no idea if he is.

 Another suggestion from Mr James counsel: that 'every time ... you see corruption by officers'

No, she retorted. The council should be open to criticism.

Mr Speker informed Mrs Thompson that Mr James and Mrs James are not members of Towy Church. I accept that, said Mrs Thompson." 

At that point Mr Speker sat down, and no further questions ensued on that subject.

After writing this post, Mrs Angry was contacted by a resident of Carmarthen with some allegations regarding Mr James's own religious affiliation. On further investigation, it appeared from many references on the Church's website that a Mark and Alison James are active members of the Living Word church, which is, like Towy, a member of the evangelical Christian movement.

Recently Caebrwyn reported here:

"Information recently published shows the council's spending on social care training sessions and the organisations involved.

Amongst the data are two entries for 2012/2013, one is for 'Conducting effective one-to-one meetings' and another for 'Developing your team', at a total cost of £500. The provider of these team building sessions is named as a Mr Matt Bownds (Communications Skills Intervention), who also happens to be the Pastor of the Living Word Church in Carmarthen.

This particular organisation has a similar faith base to the Council's partners, the Towy Community Church. It follows the evangelical tradition that it's 'great commission is to make disciples';  Non-believers, in other words, sinners, will 'spend eternity separated from Christ, in hell'; and, of course, the literal belief in the Bible, 'which is completely trustworthy, true and without error'.

Perhaps it should be noted that as well as team building sessions for council staff, other members deliver assemblies in our Carmarthenshire schools

On August 2nd, Mrs Angry sent the following request for further information about the Towy issue to the Press Officer of Carmarthenshire County Council: 

"I understand that Mr James and his wife Alison appear to be members of a similar church in Carmarthen, the Living Word Church, whose website declares its evangelical beliefs here: and contains many references to their active involvement, for example:
 "July 13, 2012 · by mattbownds · in Blog Post * Tuesday 17th July @ the James’ house – continuing our series on the 10 Commandments.'2

* Tuesday @ Mark and Alison’s is a church members’ meeting * Thusday is Men’s group: Curry and conversation around chapter 7 of Disciplines: Discipline of Devotion

- Tuesday @ Alison & Mark’s: Ted Wright from the Gideons will be giving a short talk and will be open for questions."

  • Can you confirm or deny that the Chief Executive is indeed or has been an active member of this Church?

  • Has he attended any services or functions at Towy Church?

Mr James was present when a loan and grant were approved to Towy for their project by the council, in two meetings, on the 11th May 2011,

and the 7th December 2011.

I understand that Mr James, who has been actively involved with the Towy development proposals, did not declare any interest despite the fact that two councillors at the December meeting both felt obliged to declare that they were Christians.

  • Please confirm or deny that no such declaration was made by Mr James.
  • Has he declared any interests at any other meetings where Towy's proposals have been discussed? If so, please give me copies of the minutes.

Personal faith is usually a matter of private interest only, but in this context regarding a decision of the council to award a grant, or loan to Towy Church, there would reasonably appear to be a requirement for any elected members or senior officers involved in the decision making process to declare any potential conflict of interest, based on any personal association with a church belonging to the same form of religious affiliation, ie, in this case the evangelical Christian movement.

  • If indeed Mr James is a member of the Living Word Church, can you please confirm whether or not, as a senior officers of the council, he is obliged to declare any such potential conflicts of interest when taking part in meetings of this nature, and explain why he made no such declaration, if indeed this is the case?
The immediate response was that as the Chief Executive was on leave until, no reply would be possible until his return, although the press officer would see if anyone else could answer any of the points. Evidently not, as no information emerged. On the 15th August, Mrs Angry reminded the officer of her questions, and made eight subsequent polite requests for a response over the next few days, to no effect: for example, on the 19th August:

As you have not acknowledged or responded to my emails of today and last week, I can only surmise that the response to my questions is as follows:

That Mr James is indeed an active member of the Living Word Church, and did not declare any interests when he attended the meetings regarding loans and grants to Towy Church.

For the last time I ask you please to confirm whether or not this is correct

No reply to the questions or clarification was sent. 

And then yesterday ... Mrs Angry received a most puzzling communication from Carmarthenshire County Council:

Dear Mrs Angry,

I refer to your request for information, which was received on 2nd August, 2013.  This has been dealt with under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. 

Under the Act, public authorities are required to confirm or deny whether they hold recorded information at the time a request is received and subject to certain exemptions, to provide a copy of the information. 

On this basis, I will respond to your request in the order it was presented using numbered points as headings for ease of reference.

1. Can you confirm or deny that the Chief Executive is indeed or has been an active member of this Church?

We do not hold information in relation to this part of your request.

2. Has he attended any services or functions at Towy Church

We do not hold this information.

3. Please confirm or deny that no such declaration was made by Mr James.

No such declaration was made.

4. Has he declared any interests at any other meetings where Towy's proposals have been discussed? If so, please give me copies of the minutes.

We do not hold any relevant information in relation to this question.

5. If indeed Mr James is a member of the Living Word Church, can you please confirm whether or not, as a senior officers of the council, he is obliged to declare any such potential conflicts of interest when taking part in meetings of this nature, and explain why he made no such declaration, if indeed this is the case?

We do not require members or officers to declare their faith.
Yours sincerely ...

In this rather extraordinary development, a set of questions sent to the press office, and acknowledged by them, and for which Mrs Angry had been promised a response, had, without her knowledge or consent, and in secret, with no forewarning, been transformed into a Freedom of Information request. 

This happily avoided the obligation of the authority to answer the questions regarding Mr James and his apparent membership of the Living Word evangelical church. 

Mrs Angry is of course still happy to receive and publish any further clarification on the points which have gone unanswered.

The response to the last question, however, is where the real point of significance lies. Mrs Angry had not asked if members or officers were required to declare their faith. The question was about declarations of potential conflicts of interest.

The Council's Code of Conduct for officers here states: 

10.0 Personal Interests 

10.1 Whilst employees’ private lives are their own concern, they must not allow their private interests to con flict with their public duty . They must not misuse their official position or information acquired in the course of their employment to further their private interests, or the interests of others. 

10.2 Employees must declare in writing to their Chief Officer any financial and non - financial interests that they consider could bring about conflict with the authority's interests

There is of course absolutely no suggestion that Mr James was involved in anything improper in the course of the Towy development process, but clearly it is reasonable to expect from the requirements of the Code of Conduct that in this circumstance he should have declared an interest, or absented himself from any decision making. That two elected members did so indicates that this is not an unreasonable requirement of a senior officer.

The significance of his own membership of the same evangelical movement as Towy is not an intrusion into his personal faith but a real matter of public interest.

The reluctance to clarify this point, and the lack of transparency over the whole issue, combined with the refusal to release documentation relating to the development and partnership with Towy, can only create a real risk of the perception of potential wrongdoing where there was none, and it can only be in the best interests of Mr James, and the council, and the residents of Carmarthenshire, that there is full and open scrutiny of the whole matter.

Last year, before the libel case, Jacqui made a Freedom of Information request for correspondence between the Council and Towy regarding the bowling alley/church project. As she explained here here in May this year:

The council refused the original request under the cost/time limits, claiming it would exceed 18 hours to retrieve the information.

The Information Commissioner (ICO) eventually decided that it could in fact be answered within the time limit and ordered the council to issue a fresh response within 35 days. The full ICO decision notice can be read here

The fresh response from the Council is another refusal under Section 14 (1), Vexatious Requests.

This matter is now being fully investigated by the Information Commissioner: as reported yesterday, the local Unison branch has issued a statement in support of her attempts to secure proper transparency about the Towy matter: see here

Jacqui Thompson has applied for the right to appeal against the findings of the libel case, and in the interests of independent journalism, and the rights of residents to hold their local authorities to account, we must all hope that permission to proceed is now granted. 

Updated 6th September:

Jacqui has just published the following statement on her blog:

Libel case - Permission to Appeal decision

I have been granted permission to appeal on one ground relating to Mark James’ counterclaim, and my legal team have now filed a request with the Court of Appeal for an oral hearing at which I will renew my application for permission on other grounds relating to both my claim and the counterclaim. 

I am awaiting confirmation and a date for that oral hearing from the Court of Appeal.
William McCormick QC will appear on my behalf.


Anonymous said...

Thank you Mrs Angry for this well written and excellent account of the shenanigans going on in CCC.

Anonymous said...

I am very grateful to you Mrs Angry for your continued exposure of the bizarre world of Carmarthenshire county council on the far side of Wales.
I myself, as an elected councillor, frequently have my queries ignored by my own authority.
Still no word as to why the council were monitoring my emails? Maybe they still are. Most of my freedom of information requests, usually made after being ignored, have been turned down so far. The one about the Towy church would be answered but only if i agree to a large fee. I'm saving up.
One officer recently told me I could not have access to the details of proceeds of the sale of a council property but helpfully actually passed on the request to the FOI officer on my behalf.Sweet.
It is impossible for us elected members to properly scrutinize a secretive council, I doubt that even the executive are fully informed of all matters.
If the Welsh Government continue to allow County Councils, officers and councillors, to behave like this the you cannot blame people here for not bothering to vote.
On the far side of Wales there are plenty of sheep, human and ovine. The tragedy is that the dogs so far have been vicious and devious enough to keep both types of sheep under control. Nothing lasts for ever.
Sian Caiach
Trying hard to represent the communities of Stadey, Ffwrnes, Pwll, Cwmbach and Sandy

Mrs Angry said...

Thank you, Cllr Caiach, for your comment. That any elected member should be driven to make FOI requests in order to fulfill their duties as councillor tells you exactly what is wrong with the culture of secrecy in this, and unfortunately, too many other local authorities. The residents of Carmarthenshire are fortunate that there are some councillors like yourself who are determined to try to carry out their responsibilities with an independence of spirit and a strong sense of duty.

Patricia B. said...

A brilliant post, thank you Mrs. Angry. As an English person living here in rural Wales, I have had a fight on my hands for ten years trying to get to the truth as to some very dubious planning practices that have impacted upon our lives to such a degree that we have been almost destroyed by it. The dishonesty that has gone hand in hand with it has been so mind boggling that I have felt at times as though I were living on another planet altogether. The truth is everything a person needs, lies are destructive. The Welsh Government have known for years the ordeal we have gone through due to dishonesty, with our A.M. desperately trying to get someone to intervene, but they continue to 'turn a blind eye' to the disgraceful conduct of senior officers of CCC. They are also obviously very aware of the Towy Church deals. They show absolute disregard to any goings on from this council. I now have no alternative but to stage my own personal protest outside of the Welsh Government when they resume in September. All I wanted was for a Minister to meet with me. Too much to ask for it would seem. Or is it that they do not want to hear! The latter me thinks. Same goes for the links to the church. The biggest problem as I see it for Wales, is that no-one from across the bridge cares a hoot what goes on here, and if we have a Government who won't - don't govern then we are 'stuffed, er, I mean stifled. I hope come September, my A.M. will be there to support me, and also my councillor. Thanks again, it's comforting to know there are some across the border who take an interest in what goes on here.
One other thing, it's thanks also to our two local bloggers that we get some expose of the dodgy practices that go on here - but no thanks to our local press!

Anonymous said...

Hear, hear Mrs Angry!

@ Cllr Caiach - You are "simply the best, better than all the rest!"