Councillor loses culture committee role after school was denied the chance to sing in Welsh at Swansea festival
Richard Youle, local democracy reporter
A Mumbles community councillor has been sanctioned by his colleagues after a primary school complained that he had not allowed its pupils to sing in Welsh at a festival.
Councillors voted in favour of removing Cllr Rob Marshall as co-chairman of the culture, tourism and communications committee and said he should send YGG Llwynderw a written apology underlining that his comments which led to the complaint were not made with the community council’s authority.
But they stopped short of removing him from the committee.
The complaint, which also claimed one of the chosen songs contained inappropriate lyrics, was in relation to a big community event called Mumbles Fest 2022. It took place last month in the grounds of Oystermouth Castle.
Mumbles Fest was to include a choir, made up of pupils from the seven primaries in the community council area, which would sing three songs.
Emails now in the public domain showed that Cllr Marshall contacted the schools on June 8 about the choir plan and the three chosen songs, urging them to take part. A week later YGG Llwynderw, West Cross, replied saying it was keen to get involved but noted that there were no songs in Welsh or with a Welsh cultural flavour.
The email said the school appreciated that the aim was mass participation but that the Welsh language was also very important. It suggested that Welsh lyrics to one of the chosen songs could be used, or options discussed about additional or alternative songs.
Cllr Marshall replied to say that singing in Welsh would be hard for the other six primary schools and that a tight festival schedule meant additional songs couldn’t be included. The school emailed back to suggest that a verse or chorus of one of the chosen songs – an Elton John one – could be sung in Welsh.
Cllr Marshall, who is a musician, replied to say he was sorry but he couldn’t agree to the request, but that he still hoped YGG Llwynderw would take part.
The email said: “I have to be blunt and say there really is no compromise as we are trying to unite the schools rather than have one stand out.
“You know what it’s like down here, people are take it or leave it about the Welsh language. I have pupils there who speak English at home and when I’m teaching in Gwyr (Gower) I hardly hear Welsh in the corridors or playground. It’s just not a particularly Welsh area culturally.”
YGG Llwynderw head teacher Rachel Collins replied to say that, unfortunately, the school would decline the invitation.
She felt strongly that her pupils should be able to sing in the language of the school, and that the event would have given all the children an opportunity to sing as one.
Mrs Collins said another reason to decline was that she felt lyrics in one of the songs – by pop star Anne-Marie – were inappropriate for primary-aged children as they referenced “baby” and “waking up alone”.
Cllr Marshall replied, saying he had run the lyrics by a very religious friend of his who was a deputy head teacher with two children at YGG Llwynderw. He said this friend didn’t think anyone would have a problem with them.
He added that he was a proud Welshman and was all for promoting the Welsh language, but that this was not the Eisteddfod, nor was Mumbles a particularly Welsh-speaking area.
The email went on: “If this were a St David’s Day event then I would want a performance totally in the Welsh language to celebrate that, but the idea of Mumbles Fest children’s choir is basically to include as many kids as possible on a stage so they get a buzz out if performing together.”
A few days after the festival took place the school wrote a letter of complaint on the grounds of exclusion of Welsh language and culture, inappropriate lyrical content, correspondence from and conduct of Cllr Marshall, and internal governance and scrutiny mechanisms of the community council.
The community council investigated and made 10 recommendations, which were set out in a report ahead of the August 16 meeting. The report said community councils could not investigate complaints about individual councillors – it was a matter for the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales – but that Cllr Marshall’s actions and correspondence were relevant in its consideration of the complaint about internal governance and scrutiny mechanisms.
The report said Cllr Marshall had not made other councillors aware of YGG Llwynderw’s concerns, which appeared to be in contravention of a standing order. It added that there was no evidence that he had sought the authority of the culture, tourism and communications committee or council officers before responding to Mrs Collins.
Cllr Marshall, after being told he had five minutes to outline his case at the meeting, said he wanted to read out an email from a councillor who was on holiday at the time.
Council chairwoman Cllr Carrie Townsend Jones said she thought this might be biased, but Cllr Marshall said she and other councillors weren’t aware of its contents, and that to offer him just five minutes was “a bit of a kangaroo court”.
He then read out the email from the absent councillor, Angela O’Connor, which said Cllr Marshall had a wealth of expertise and experience, was an ideal co-chairman of the culture, tourism and communications committee, that he had an exemplary track record, and that in this instance there were “huge time constraints”. Her email said Cllr Marshall was not responsible for the governance and scrutiny failings or that if he was, in part, others members of the committee should also be responsible.
Her email said Cllr Marshall ought to write a letter of apology to YGG Llwynderw but that there was no basis for further action. To remove him from his co-chairman post or from the committee, it said, “would be a completely self-defeating exercise to the detriment of the community”. Such action, it added, would be “disproportionate and irrational”.
Addressing head teacher Mrs Collins and the school’s chairwoman of governors, Katherine Fender, Cllr Marshall said he was sorry that there hadn’t been time to accommodate the Welsh language at the festival.
“It was not a slight on the Welsh language and it was certainly not ignoring the Welsh language,” he said. “In my professional career as a musician I have been very supportive of the Welsh language and Welsh culture.”
Cllr Marshall said he understood how the school might have taken offence, though, and said it had not been meant. “It was purely time constraints,” he said. There were, he said, 11 live acts to get on and off stage at the festival.
Cllr Marshall also said he didn’t see any problem with the song lyrics complained about, and added that when he was young he recalled seeing Olivia Newton-John “prancing around in a catsuit”.
Cllr Marshall then said that, rather than a complaint, he would have appreciated an email from the school asking if a song in Welsh could be guaranteed at next year’s festival, “to which the answer would be absolutely yes”.
He went on: “The children of Llwynderw were not excluded from taking part by myself or Mumbles Community Council – it was your decision to pull them out of the festival.”
The press and public were than excluded from a discussion by councillors about what sanctions, if any, should be applied to Cllr Marshall. The decision was announced when the open session resumed around 20 minutes later.
Councillors then discussed the wider report and its recommendations, with nine of of them voting to accept the recommendations, one opposing, and two abstaining.
Council vice-chairwoman Cllr Rebecca Fogarty said she hoped the community council “will seize the opportunity to learn” from the report, while Cllr Townsend Jones said she hoped it would be “more inclusive” regarding the Welsh language over time. But she also said there was “a significant resource issue to make everything bilingual” and that it was not something that could happen overnight as the budget for the current financial year was set.
Cllr Helen Nelson said she felt there were “quick wins and simple changes” which the council could enact now.
School governor chairwoman Dr Fender addressed the meeting to thank councillors for their comments, but she said the governing body felt the Welsh language issue had still not been addressed, and that the time constraint regarding the festival didn’t really satisfy the concerns. In response to Cllr Marshall’s comments that he would have appreciated a request for a song in Welsh next year rather than a complaint, she said: “We didn’t feel we had any choice.”
Dr Fender said she would also like an explanation about Cllr Marshall’s comments about Welsh performances not having a place outside of the Eisteddfod.
Cllr Marshall said he didn’t think the Welsh language should be confined to the Eisteddfod – and then said he had just received an abusive email from a member of the public which he would forward to the council’s clerk.
Cllr Marshall also said he thought it was a “sham” that Cllr Townsend Jones had written an email of apology to the school while being part of the review process.
Speaking earlier in the meeting, John Jones, a former mayor of Beaumaris, Anglesey, who now lives in West Cross, said Mumbles gained a lot from tourism, including visitors from places like Cardigan and Carmarthen, where Welsh is spoken widely. “Perception is everything,” he said. “Right now Mumbles has got a problem.”
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