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Blogger ‘in dark’ over meeting

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Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 13.00.07THE LEADER of Carmarthenshire County Council has come under fire, after it was revealed that he leaked the outcome of a private meeting to the local press before the party concerned was informed.

Blogger Jacqui Thompson will be made to repay £190,000 following a 2013 libel case, according to a statement the council leader gave to a local paper.

Speaking to the Carmarthen Journal, Councillor Emlyn Dole said: “The executive board’s decision was to pursue the full costs awarded to the council by the High Court, in the interests of the public purse.”

The matter was discussed behind closed doors at an Executive Board Meeting on March 21. No details concerning the content of what was discussed, and what conclusions were reached, was made available to the media, and the webcast recording was terminated prior to the discussion.

However, apparently, the Board was asked to decide whether Ms Thompson – who writes the Carmarthenshire Planning Problems blog – should repay the council’s insurance excess of £127,625, or the full £190,390 which includes £62,765 to be repaid to the insurers.

The claim dates back to 2011. In June that year, Ms Thompson was arrested for trying to film a council meeting.

Later that year, Council Chief Executive Mark James posted comments on the Mad Axeman blog page, which Ms Thompson considered libellous.

She sued Mr James, but in March 2013 a High Court Judge dismissed her claim and honoured a counter-claim for libel from the council Chief Executive.

Ms Thompson was ordered to pay £25,000 in damages, as well as costs. An appeal in 2014 was unsuccessful.

However, while Ms Thompson was aware that this matter was being discussed by the Executive Board, she discovered the outcome of the meeting after she was phoned by a journalist, who told her what Cllr Dole had said.

Interestingly, this was a day before the minutes of the Executive Board Meeting were released. As previously mentioned, the meeting took place behind closed doors and, in the words of the minutes, ‘all officers, with the exception of the Director of Corporate Services, the Head of Administration and Law and the Democratic Services Officer left the meeting for this item.’

Ms Thompson had previously asked the Head of Legal Services Linda Rees Jones to be told the meeting’s outcome. She received the following response: “I cannot inform you of the outcome of this item before our own members, but I will notify you when members are notified.”

However, The Herald has learned that a number of County Councillors were unaware of the Executive Board’s decision.

Labour Councillor Anthony Jones said he was ‘rather surprised as I didn’t know anything about it.’

When informed about the comments made by the Council Leader, Cllr Jones added: “If that is the state of affairs, I wouldn’t have thought it appropriate to make such comments, and would have expected a briefing note.”

People First Councillor Siân Caiach had also not received any notification from the council. However, as she pointed out “we have never been informed about anything regarding the libel action before.”

“It has been a long saga, and I find it absolutely disgusting that the majority of my colleagues have gone along with this,” she added.

It has also been suggested by a source that the figures featured in the article ‘could only have come from the exempt report,’ which implies that a local newspaper was given access to a document which remains unavailable to the public.

The reason for this document, and the privacy surrounding the meeting, were given as follows in the executive Board minutes:

The report and subsequent discussion were said to contain ‘information relating to the financial or business affairs of any particular person (including the authority holding that information).’

In a statement made by Ms Thompson to the media, which she has given us permission to use, she said:” I am astonished and horrified by this decision, which incidentally I had to learn from the press rather than the council.

“As I’ve made clear in the past, and currently to Mr James’ bailiffs, I have nothing. This is ridiculous, they will never get this and now seem prepared to spend more good money going after bad. Part of these costs were unlawful and it’s about time the Welsh Government stepped in.”

The Herald asked Carmarthenshire County Council if it could provide a copy of the leader’s statement and a further comment from the head of legal on her assessment of the prospects for recovery of the monies mentioned.

We also asked ‘whether the Council thinks it appropriate for a member or officer to make a public statement on the topic without informing the other party to litigation of its substance.’

We also asked to confirm if ‘all councillors were notified before Cllr Dole’s leak of a confidential decision reached in private session to an employee of a newspaper group for which he is a columnist. We asked for confirmation of how councillors were notified. We asked for confirmation that Councillor Dole’s comments were more than a case of him enthusiastically jumping the gun in a casual conversation’.

Instead every single one of those queries, including the direct question of when and how the Council’s legal department had informed Mrs Thompson of the Executive Board’s decision, was ignored.

We received the following response:

‘Leader of the council, Cllr Emlyn Dole, said: “The Executive Board’s decision was to pursue the full costs awarded to the council by the High Court, in the interests of the public purse.”

‘No further information will be provided’. Some straight questions, it seems, are incapable of being met with straight answers.

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Business

Applications open for emergency financial support from Economic Resilience Fund

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Eligible businesses can apply for grants of between £2,500 to £25,000

BUSINESSES in Wales impacted by the rapid spread of the Omicron virus can now apply for emergency financial support from the Welsh Government’s Economic Resilience Fund (ERF).

Economy Minister Vaughan Gething previously said £120 million would be available for retail, hospitality, leisure and tourism business and their supply chains affected by the move to alert level 2 announced by the First Minister on Wednesday 22 December.

Eligible businesses can apply for grants of between £2,500 to £25,000, with grants dependent on their size and number of employees.

The application window will be open for two weeks, with payments starting to reach businesses within days.

Vaughan Gething

Economy Minister, Vaughan Gething, said:

“Following positive engagement with businesses, trades unions and other partners, we recently changed the eligibility criteria for the ERF support. The ERF grant is a Wales-only top up payment that currently supports eligible businesses who have seen a 60% drop in their income between December and February compared with the same period two years ago. The new criteria means that businesses in these sectors who have seen a 50% reduction in their turnover will now also be able to access the ERF.

“This means more businesses will receive more support from the Welsh Government.”

Non-essential retail, hospitality, leisure and tourism businesses in Wales can also receive support from the Non Domestic Rates (NDR) linked grant which is being administered by local authorities. Businesses will be entitled to a payment of £2,000, £4,000 or £6,000 depending on their rateable value.

Local authorities are also administrating a discretionary fund for sole traders, freelancers and taxi drivers and businesses that employ people but do not pay business rates. Last week this was doubled to £1,000.

The Welsh Government has provided in excess of £2.5bn funding to Welsh businesses since the start of the pandemic. Focused particularly on backing small businesses and Welsh communities, it’s targeted approach has helped protect in excess of 160,000 Welsh jobs which might otherwise have been lost.

Apply for Economic Resilience Fund support here:

COVID-19 Support for Business | Business Wales (gov.wales)

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Plans for Cross Hands Health Centre to go before Welsh Government

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AN OUTLINE Business Case for the development of a Wellbeing Centre to be based in Cross Hands is to be resubmitted to Welsh Government, Hywel Dda University Health Board is pleased to announce.

The business case outlines our intention to develop an integrated health and social care network of services for the Amman Gwendraeth area and the construction of a Wellbeing Centre. If approved, the centre will provide a base for health and care services which will accommodate two local GP practices (Tumble and Penygroes), a library, family centre, community pharmacy and also community police support officers and voluntary sector groups.

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the way we deliver some health and care services. Hywel Dda University Health Board has been working with partners and stakeholders to refresh the business case for the development to ensure that these continue to be fit for our population’s health and care needs both now and in the future.  It is anticipated that the Business Case will be resubmitted to Welsh Government in Spring 2022.

Rhian Dawson, Integrated System Director for Hywel Dda University Health Board and Carmarthenshire County Council, said: “I am delighted that we are now able to refocus on the development of the Wellbeing Centre in Cross Hands. This will not only be an asset for Cross Hands but will benefit Carmarthenshire as a whole. While it is unfortunate that the pandemic has delayed our progress, it has also demonstrated the importance of delivering services as close to home as possible.”

It is anticipated that the Centre could potentially be complete in 36 months from the approval of the Outline Business case. 

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Boris Johnson apologises over latest No.10 party revelations saying it was ‘work event’

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THE PRIME MINISTER says he thought party in March was a ‘work event’ but concedes he should have stopped the gathering on May 20, 2020.

In Prime Minister’s questions on Wednesday (Jan 12), he apologised to the public and said that “I wish that things had been done differently on that night.”

But Boris Johnson said that Labour will have to wait for the outcome of an inquiry to know the exact details of what happened that night.

Labour Leader, Keir Starmer said Matt Hancock resigned when he broke the rules, and Allegra Stratton resigned for laughing about rule breaking. Why does the PM think the rules don’t apply to him. Boris Johnson says that is not what he said.

Starmer said the PM originally said he had been assured there were no parties. Then the video landed, and he pretended he was sickened by the parties. Now it turns out he was at the parties. Starmer added that it was his opinion that the public think he is “lying through his teeth”.

Tory MPs objected, on the grounds that MPs should not accuse each other of lying. Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker, defended Starmer, saying he is talking about what the public think.

Johnson said he does not accept that. He added a laywer should wait for the facts.

Keir Starmer said that he spoke last night to a woman, Hannah, whose father died last May. She met Johnson last year, and Johnson told her that he had done everything possible to protect her dad. Hannah now knows her father’s death certificate was signed on the day of the party. Does the PM understand how she feels?

Johnson said he understands how she feels. He wanted to apologise. But the government has been doing what it can to protect people. It has the most tested population in Europe. And it has had the fastest vaccine rollout in Europe, and one of the fastest in the world. Apologising again, the PM said: “Whatever mistakes have been made on my watch, for which I apologise, that is the work that has been going on in Dowing Street.”

Simon Hart MP: We have to get to the bottom of this

Simon Hart, the Welsh Secretary, and MP for South Pembrokeshire and West Carmarthenshire, has become the first cabinet minister to publicly express concerns about the latest partygate revelations.  Simon Hart said this morning: “We’re in the middle of an investigation, that was set up by the PM to get to the bottom and to get to the truth about what was reasonable at the time and what wasn’t. It’s frustrating to have to rely on the investigation and we must be careful to not pre-judge that or what the PM will say in a few minutes’ time.

“The one thing I’m not going to do is make light of something that is unquestionably something of a significant public concern.

“I don’t live on a different planet. The frustration and the hurt and indignation and the incredulity that emerging stories like this produce. I’ve got, like everyone, family and friends asking me these questions. We have to get to the bottom of this.

“Judgment will need to be made about what happens next.”

There is some excellent detail about the No 10 party on 20 May 2020 in the Times today. The paper reports that Martin Reynolds, who sent out the email invitation to around 100 staff as the PM’s principal private secretary, became “panicky” in advance of the event, because staff were concerned it was against the rules, but decided cancelling the event would make things worse. The paper reports: “That afternoon, staff began preparations. A row of tables was set up on one side of the garden to act as a bar. In the garden itself more tables were set up in a layout to encourage people to observe social-distancing rules.

“Officials and advisers began arriving shortly after 6pm. While many stayed away, about 40 came. Many took up Reynolds’ suggestion in his email that they should “BYOB” — bring your own booze — taking a trip to the Tesco Express next to Westminster station. The drinks table was well stocked with gin, rosé, red wine and white wine, and guests began to arrive and mingle.

“Two sources said that the prime minister attended, with one saying he was “wandering round gladhanding people”. His fiancée Carrie Symonds, whom he married last year, also attended and was said to have been drinking with Henry Newman, then an adviser to Michael Gove and now a senior figure in No 10.

“The Times has been told that one senior official at the event joked about the risk of surveillance by drones, which was viewed as a tacit admission that the rules were being breached.”

Police in England issued 118,419 fines for breaking lockdown rules between 27 March 2020 and 17 October last year. That included 800 fines in the week when the No 10 party was held on 20 May 2020.

In London 17,745 fines were issued between March 2020 and October last year, including 113 for holding illegal gatherings of more than 30 people.

Ed Davey, the Lib Dem leader, said: “Thousands of Londoners have been fined for flouting lockdown rules during the pandemic. It would be double standards of the worst kind for the police to turn a blind eye when those in No 10 have done the same.”

Carmarthen East and Dinefwr MP, Jonathan Edwards, questioned the British Government on the floor of the House of Commons this week with regard to the ongoing allegations facing the Prime Minister and his Cabinet.

Allegations of a party held by government members and officials during May 2020 continue to plague the Conservative administration, with pressure mounting on the British Government over the past few days.

With an investigation into these claims commissioned, Jonathan Edwards MP questioned the government on what they believed would be an appropriate political sanction should the investigation conclude that a party was held and that the Prime Minister, or other Ministers attended.

The response came that it was not appropriate to comment on this hypothetical situation, and that they would await the results of the independent investigation.

Speaking outside the Chamber, Mr Edwards said: “I have been contacted my several constituents in the past few days outlining their shock, their disappointment, and their anger at the current allegations that this Government faces.

The stories they have shared with me of enormous personal sacrifice, of funerals held over video calls, and of elderly family members unable to see their loved ones in the flesh, have been emotionally powerful, and I thank them for sharing those experiences with me.

Should the allegations of Government Ministers attending a party at this very same period prove to be true, it will fly in the face of the collective struggle that everyday people have endured for almost 2 years now, and it will finally confirm what many of us here in Wales have already theorised: that the political ruling class in Westminster do not care about the citizens that they represent.”

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