Saturday 24 August 2013

Obviously God has a plan: how government cuts lead to salvation, even in Broken Barnet

Barnet Homes Officers trained by Christians Against Poverty

*Updated 10th September: see below

Following on the theme of the previous post, Mrs Angry feels the spirit moving her to bring you more Good News of a spiritual awakening, this time not in the valleys of Carmarthenshire but rather the council estates of Broken Barnet.

Here is another sharp lesson in the dangers of local authorities succumbing to the lure of evangelical Christian bodies seeking to exploit the lack of social care provision in this dark era of budget cuts - and welfare reform.

Earlier this year along with other residents Mrs Angry had attended the March quarterly meeting of the Barnet Group Board:

This Board oversees the running of Barnet's ALMO/Arms Length Management Organisation, Barnet Homes, and the disgraceful enterprise known as Your Choice Barnet, a new venture intended to make profit out of providing care for disabled residents, and subsidise the losses incurred by Barnet Homes. The business model for YCB, written byour multi million pound billing One Barnet consultants, rather unsurprisingly has proved to be utterly unworkable, and has itself had to be subsidised by Barnet Council.

At this meeting, there was a token discussion about the expected impact on tenants of the changes to the benefit system imposed by the government, and in particular the Bedroom Tax. 

Derek Rust, the Director of Operations for Barnet Homes, told the Board that they had a ready made solution. They would be addressing the problem with the help of voluntary bodies, faith groups, specifically with a debt counselling service from a body called Christians Against Poverty. CAP, for short. This is, he told the Board, rather unconvincingly, a non denominational charity.

Mrs Angry truly could not believe what she was hearing. 

CAP had recently been in the news after being dropped from national agency AdviceUk, after allegations that the proffered service came with a hidden emotional fee: the use of prayer. 

The group's website boasted of the number of converts their programme had made through the debt counselling service and it was perfectly clear on reading this that the counselling was being used as an instrument of evangelical proselytism.
"Combining CAP's expertise with the love and message of the church we have a life transforming mix. Every year we help over 20,000 people to get out of debt and see 500 people become Christians through our Debt Help work as well as 10,000 people benefiting from our CAP Money Course."

In the last week, Mrs Angry noted a CAP group in Barnet following her on twitter. Yesterday they tweeted an invitation for us to read what has been happening at the 'Barnet South CAP debt centre'. This links to a website where we learn:

This month has been a blast. We have started working with six new clients, booked in more clients (so we’re booked until the middle of October), and ran two one day CAP money courses.

The six new clients we have started working with brought six new stories of peoples lives trapped in fear and anxiety. It is so good to know we can go in and bring hope and peace to their lives.It still amazes me that people just sharing their burdens with us can help them to experience the burden being lifted. God made us to be in community and gave each one of us strengths to support each other when troubled times come.

If you know anyone struggling with debt and they’re full of anxiety and fear, why not tell them about our service? There is no shame in admitting we need help!

The picture above shows one of our money courses, teaching Barnet Homes housing officers the money course and making new friends throughout. The first one day money course was enjoyed so much, that the next day more people joined us than were booked on, and we have been invited back to do more. The CAP money course is such a good tool, and fits so perfectly with all the benefit changes coming in. Obviously God has a plan!

Please pray for us as we continue on His mission to bring His kingdom and freedom to peoples lives.

We will be praying that you experience His love and comfort this month,

This is by any standard a pretty extraordinary situation, is it not? 

Barnet Homes officers, paid for by public money, working with vulnerable residents stuggling with financial difficulties, being trained by an evangelical Christian group?

And one might be forgiven for reading this piece and concluding that these people see God's plan as the appalling burden placed on the poorest members of our society by the government's welfare cuts driving people to salvation in the Lord, via their organisation and the 'support' they offer to those in crisis.

What on earth is Barnet Homes doing? 

Tracy Lees, the Chief Executive of the Barnet Group, who earns a six figure sum for her post and presumably will not be requiring the support of CAP, must be held to account for the use of such an organisation. 

How can it be acceptable to allow a fundamentalist faith group to target residents in this way? And in a borough with such a wide and diverse number of ethnic, religious and cultural groups, can it possibly be thought appropriate to introduce such a scheme? What about the impact on LBGT residents, whose sexuality represents a direct conflict to the values of Christian evangelical groups?

And since when has it become acceptable for housing officers to receive training from such organisations? There is a reference on the site to working with Barnet Homes apprentices, and a quote last month from the head of Human Resources:

“We had a really good meeting with our apprentices this morning. They love our development programme and got a lot out of managing money provided by CAP. They all said it should be the first training any apprentice coming to TBG should receive. So we are amending our programme!”

In fact the situation is even more alarming that at first glance.

Looking at the Barnet CAP website, it seems they have been present in Barnet before the March Board meeting, opening on June 2012, and working with Jesus House, another local evangelical faith organisation, and a church.

Reading through the archived posts on the website we read of the conversions that this programme has made in Barnet while providing debt counselling to residents: also in July -

We had some amazing news this month when one of our old clients decided she wanted to ACCEPT JESUS as her Lord and Saviour. 

She has had a very tough time over the last few years. She has struggled with alcoholism and depression. Her father passed away and her debts built up because she started working part time and it made a mess of her housing benefit. When she came to us she was quite anxious and worried. She accepted prayer each time we met her, and always said she felt more peace after we prayed. However we lost contact with her and her case wasn’t moving forward very well.

Last week one of our case workers from head office called her and spoke with her. When they were speaking the cae worker offered to pray and spoke about Jesus. Our client gladly accepted the love God has for her and invited Him in.

When I spoke to her later she said she was moved by Gods power and knew she needed something greater to work in her life.

I love how God calls us into being on mission together and uses each of us on the way along peoples journeys to call people home. He is greater! 
Back to March 2013, just after the Barnet Group meeting:

We have also had other very exciting news. Barnet Homes have funded us to run six CAP money courses for their residents over the next year!This is a massive step forward. We will be teaching people to manage their money and see them gain freedom and control!

CAP money is a very special area of CAP to me personally. It was while running CAP money that we realised the huge need in our community and how amazing the work of CAP is. I love how timely this has happened, just as life is going to get alot harder for the poorest people with benefit changes. This is definitely something that God has his hand on!

Mrs Angry prefers to think that God has not inspired the policies of the Condem government, especially in its evil plan to punish the poor with welfare cuts, in order to bring lost souls to salvation. 

It might be more likely that the Lord would want Christians to fight the causes of poverty, and to challenge the politicians who are imposing such injustice on those least able to bear it, and to offer them loving support, without condition, or without profit.

But we are living now in the new outpost of Capitaville: we exist for the profit of others, from the day we are born, and the day we die - and now even our lives in the next world have become a marketing opportunity for the outsourcing of our souls.

Updated 10th September:

After being away, Mrs Angry thought she should follow up this story, and last week wrote to several people regarding the activities of CAP in Barnet, including Tory leader Richard Cornelius, housing portfolio holder Cllr Tom Davey, and Chief Executive of Barnet Homes, Tracy Lees, the Labour and Libdem leaders. For Labour Cllr Mittra replied and sent his own enquiry to Ms Lees, and Libdem leader Jack Cohen also responded immediately with his own concerns. No Conservative has responded, nor has Ms Lees.

After a meeting last night Mrs Angry cornered Cllr Cornelius and asked him to reply: he said he could not remember receiving any email from her, so she helped him to find it, lost in the depths of his in box. She looks forward to his response. 

In the meanwhile, if further proof were needed of this organisation's potential for exploiting the vulnerability of residents targeted by this scheme, and disturbing the sensitive balance of community relations in this borough, here it is: read this extract from their fellow evangelists at Jesus House, another body which has profited from grants from Barnet, including generous funding from Cllr Robert Rams' 'Big Society Innovation Fund': 

 "December 2012 saw the Barnet South CAP (Christians Against Poverty) centre turn six months old.

The CAP project was set up to work in our local community supporting people who are struggling with debt, where control has been lost and costs are spiralling upwards.

With the Christmas season over and a brand New Year, it seems apt to reflect on all the amazing things which have happened over our first six months.

Having unmanageable debts can lead to all sorts of pressures and people often feel hopeless despair. A survey of CAP’s clients showed that 69% of our clients have had to visit the doctor because of illness caused by debt, and 40% of our clients have seriously considered suicide as their only option. At CAP our aim is to bring the love and hope of Jesus into our clients’ lives. We offer free debt counselling and also a lot of love, prayer and support to every client.

Since its opening, we have been fully booked with clients and have many testimonies of what God has been doing. Clients have been a real mix of people, from all walks of life. Andrew Cooley CAP Centre Manager said; 

“We have been supporting a Muslim lady who has been struggling since losing her job. When we first met her she told us that she felt suicidal and couldn’t handle the pressure. It has been a great joy to see her come on one of our money management courses and start to get her confidence back.She has also had dreams of Jesus visiting her and has been very open to us praying for her, and rings me quite often to ask me to pray for different areas of her life! We are praying that she truly accepts Jesus and follows Him.”

He added: “God has been opening so many doors with referral agencies working in Barnet, who are now referring people to us. At the end of November we had a launch event where the Mayor of Barnet, a London MEP, and the CEO of Barnet homes came to hear about our work, along with a number of other charity workers and church leaders. We had a great day and have been invited back to speak to the leadership board of Barnet homes to let them know more about what we do.”

We’re really looking forward to what God will do in 2013."

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.