AT THE LAST meeting of the County Council, there was a lot of talk about ‘semantics’, the way in which words are used, abused, and misunderstood.
Chief Executive Mark James CBE picked up on one such ‘misunderstanding’ by Cllr Anthony Jones. Cllr Jones, Mr James averred, had become confused between the meaning of the word ‘endorsed’ and conflated it with ‘approval’. Approval, Mr James pointed out, in the case in point, had already taken place. The Executive Board had endorsed that earlier decision, not made it itself.
Carmarthenshire County Council’s flag policy attracted the attention of Herald columnist Cadno in August.
He noted that the Rainbow Flag, adopted the world over by the LGBT movement as a symbol of their pride, did not flutter over Gaol Hill for LGBT History Month in February of this year.
When we raised the question at the time, our reporter was told that Carmarthenshire ‘had a procedure’ regarding the flying of flags from public buildings, as the authority received so many requests to participate in special events that it had decided that indiscriminate flag flying required regulation.
After Cadno’s article (‘The Power of Love’) appeared in August, a Herald reader made a Freedom of Information Act request to Carmarthenshire County Council, seeking to establish just how many requests the Council had received in respect of its policy and how many it had received in the years preceding the policy’s adoption.
THE COUNCIL’S REPLY
Jimi Reid of Ammanford received the following response to his request:
“In the newspaper, I have seen a reference to a flag policy you have adopted, in which there is a procedure for making requests to fly flags from council buildings.
1. Please confirm when that policy was adopted by the council.
A. July 10, 2015.
2. Please confirm how many requests have been made and by whom under the provisions of that policy to fly flags from council buildings.
A. There have been two requests. One from a community group called CETMA (Community Engagement, Media, Technology & Arts) and the other from Seafarers UK.
3. Please confirm how many requests were made and by whom for flags to be flown from council buildings in the three years before the policy was put in place.
A. We do not hold this information.
4. In both instances, where the policy was in place and in the three years before the policy was put in place, please let me know how many of the requests made have been rejected and why they were rejected.”
A. The two requests received since the policy has been in place were refused. We do not hold information prior to the introduction of the policy.
Our attention was attracted by the inclusion of CETMA in the very short list of the ‘many’ applications the council had received in relation to flying a flag from County Council buildings. Among the projects with which CETMA is engaged are several relating to LGBT projects and LGBT Pride.
We contacted CETMA and asked them why their request had been rejected.
CETMA provided us with their request, made to Mark James CBE, Carmarthenshire Council’s CEO.
Dear Mr James,
I am contacting you to see whether the County Council would fly the Pride Flag during the week of Monday 1st to Sunday 7th August 2016.
The reason for this is that we have a project called Llanelli LGBT Support and we will be holding Llanelli LGBT day on Saturday 6th August. The day is about everyone coming together to raise awareness about how far Carmarthenshire and Wales has come and how far it has to go in regards to equality and to celebrate achievements in the areas of LGBT.
Having the flag flying from Llanelli Old Town Hall on the day and during the week would be brilliant. We did try last year but we’d left it too late.
If you would like more information, then please let me know.
MR JAMES’ PERSONAL RESPONSE
Thank you for letting me know about the project that you are intending to run in August. As you may know, the council has been keen to promote diversity in the workplace and beyond. We have worked with organisations such as Stonewall to look at how we support employees and ensure that we are a welcoming employer. We were very pleased to have been placed in the top 100 employers in the Stonewall annual rankings and we will continue to work to promote diversity as an a employer.
With regard to the issue of flying flags, we get many requests from campaign groups and organisations to participate in their events and, whilst we are often happy to assist with those events at a community level, WE HAVE TAKEN A VIEW THAT THIS DOES NOT EXTEND TO FLAG FLYING AT CIVIC BUILDINGS (emphasis added). As I am sure that you will understand, if we agree to do so for one group, we would find it difficult to refuse another and this might lead to administrative or other difficulties. We have, therefore, in the past declined to use flagpoles at civic buildings in this way.
I wish you every success with your events in August. Please do let us know if there is anything else we might be able to assist with.
THE QUESTION OF TIMING
An examination of council meetings, agendas and minutes dated before the policy’s adoption shows no indication that the policy was EVER discussed by County Councillors. Indeed, the policy’s introduction in July is, entirely coincidentally, within 28 days of LGBT Pride Week. Any application made by CETMA after July 15, 2015 would have been caught by the adoption of a procedure which did not exist beforehand and which received scant – if any – publicity.
We contacted CETMA again and were told that, as LGBT Pride takes place at the beginning of August, the request to fly the flag in 2015 was made at the beginning of the July.
That means that the request to fly the LGBT Rainbow Flag from Llanelli Town Hall was made – entirely coincidentally – either before or at the time the flag policy was adopted.
A policy for which the council can provide no evidence for necessity .
Moreover, the rational underpinning the adoption of the policy, ‘introduced due to the increasing number of requests being received, and the cost implications’ is not only highly questionable, based on the limited number of requests made since the policy’s adoption, but impossible to verify because the council simply did not retain records. How the council can state that a policy was introduced on the grounds of ‘cost implications’ when it does not even hold the data relating to the requests – IF ANY – actually made, is even more questionable.
Since the policy’s adoption, the council has flown the Rainbow Flag once, in response to the Orlando nightclub massacre.
As it stands, on the face of Mr James’s words, the policy is redundant. Mr James will never give permission to fly any flag. On the basis that nobody will get permission, of course, the policy cannot be said to be discriminatory in any way.
Which, of course, it isn’t.
Benefits system ‘failing Wales’
A REPORT from a Welsh Assembly Committee states the benefits system is too complex and does not treat people with dignity, fairness and compassion.
An inquiry held by the National Assembly for Wales’ Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee heard the benefits system is failing some people on the lowest incomes and is causing wider problems for our communities – in areas from mental health, to local government to poverty.
The UK Government’s programme of welfare reform is one of the most important political issues to affect Wales since devolution.
By 2023, one-third of Welsh households will receive Universal Credit, and the Committee heard particular concerns that long waits for the first payment and monthly, rather than fortnightly, payments were causing numerous problems.
The Committee’s report – Benefits in Wales: Options for a better delivery – contains 17 recommendations for Welsh Government. These include changes within the current devolution settlement, as well as exploring the devolution of housing-related benefits and the assessment process for disability and sickness benefits.
Included in the Committee’s report are recommendations to address these issues. They call for the Welsh Government to ensure that Discretionary Assistance Fund (DAF) payments are made available as an immediate action. DAF payments are non-repayable emergency grants for people on low-income in Wales and could ease the pressure on households as they wait for their Universal Credit payments.
Welsh Government should also seek payment flexibilities, so people can opt for more frequent payments, direct payments to the landlord, or to split payments between couples.
The complex system is not working at its best and could do more to help people on the lowest incomes, says John Griffiths AM, Chair of the Equality Local Government and Communities Committee;
“The current system is not working for far too many people. We repeatedly hear that benefits are not enough to cover basic and essential household costs, and the system does not treat people with dignity, fairness or compassion. The human cost of these failures is unacceptable, in one of the world’s largest national economies.
“Whilst recommending that Welsh Government explore opportunities to devolve more control of benefits to Wales, our recommendations emphasise what can be done now, within the current settlement, and in the longer term. We believe they set out a clear framework for positive change, which will reduce poverty and inequality at an individual and household level, improve well-being and the economy at a community and national level.
“Almost half of the Welsh population receive some kind of benefit, but the social security system is largely non-devolved. The system plays a vital role in the Welsh economy, for individual households and also the wider Welsh purse.”
Alone, among Wales’ principal political parties, Plaid Cymru supports the devolution of welfare benefits’ administration to Wales.
And a report published by the Wales Governance Centre outlines how Wales could be financially better off if it followed the same model over welfare as Scotland.
The report says that if a fiscal framework agreement similar to the one negotiated by the Scottish Government had been agreed by the Welsh and UK governments and had powers over S-benefits been devolved to Wales in 2018-19, the Welsh Treasury “would have been cumulatively better off by £700 million by the end of 2023-24.”
The Wales Governance Centre estimates we could be generating surpluses of over £200 million by the middle of the next decade if Wales had the same deal as Scotland. There would also be the indirect savings to the NHS and Housing Associations who have had to pick up the tab from Westminster’s shambolic handling of the welfare system.
Executive Board agree to back BID for Carmarthen
CARMARTHENSHIRE County Council’s Executive Board has pledged to support a BID in Carmarthen.
Executive Board agreed to back a Business Improvement District (BID) which focuses on improvements through a collective effort in a meeting today (Monday, Oct 21).
A BID sees businesses in a defined commercial area work together and invest in agreed services, projects and special events.
Almost 200 Carmarthen businesses have been consulted about the proposed plans and opinion was overwhelmingly positive.
A ballot will now be held in the spring and businesses will be able to cast their votes on whether to accept the initiative.
If successful, the BID would be business led and financed by a levy made on the rateable value of a commercial property.
Businesses would pay an annual levy of 1.5 per cent every year, generating more than £165,000 per year to be used to improve the town.
Llanelli has had a BID – Ymlaen Llanelli – since 2015.
Council Leader, Cllr Emlyn Dole, said: “We’re very keen to support this. It would improve the town’s profile, economy, footfall and more.”
Cllr Peter Hughes-Griffiths, said: “There has been a lot of enthusiasm for this for the last two years. Everyone will benefit.”
For the full report or watch the webcast of the debate, visit the council democracy section at www.carmarthenshire.gov.wales
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