Brothers in arms

Oddjob and Goldfinger

The young whippersnapper over at that other website has an excellent piece on the close relationship between Bryn Parry-Jones and Cllr Brian Hall, which he has likened to that between Arthur Daley and his minder Terry.

Goldfinger and Oddjob would more closely fit my estimation.

I have long been baffled as to how the sophisticated, Oxford-educated lawyer came to be such a big buddy of Cllr Hall who can best be described as a political thug.

One of Mr Parry-Jones’ earlier encounters with Cllr Hall would be at the council meeting on 23 October 1997 (minute 518) when he faced a vote of censure for threatening Labour leader David Edwards and Plaid Cymru leader Aled ap Gwynedd with violence following the previous meeting of council.

Cllr Hall made no attempt to deny the allegations.

Instead he turned up armed with a pantomime sword and other military accoutrements and made a mockery of the proceedings. Even some of his close IPG colleagues were appalled, with Cllr Johnny Allen-Mirehouse particularly critical of his behaviour.

You might have thought that someone in Mr Parry-Jones’ position would have avoided such a man like the plague, but it wasn’t long before the two of them were bosom pals.

If reports of what went on in Mr Parry-Jones office during his meeting with Cllrs Peter Morgan and Mark Edwards are to be believed, it would seem that some of Cllr Hall’s thuggery has rubbed off on the chief executive, but I have seen no evidence of any influence in the other direction.

I have had several run-ins with this duo over the years, but backed by the synchronised voters of the IPPG (formerly IPG) they have almost always come out on top.

Back in 1999 we sold the Mercury to Newscom Ltd, the owners of the Western Telegraph.

I was asked to stay on to write my Old Grumpy column. One of my favourite subjects was Cllr Hall’s unorthodox expense-claiming practices.

Councillors are allowed to claim mileage allowances for what the statute describes as “approved duties” which includes such obvious things as travelling to council meetings, seminars and other official duties.

As well as these specifically defined duties the legislation includes a general category:

(b) any other duty approved by the body, or any duty of a class so approved, for the purpose of, or in connection with, the discharge of the functions of the body, or of any of its committees or sub-committees.

This legislation is designed to ensure that members are not out of pocket, while at the same time limiting their opportunities for popping in to county hall whenever they feel like it at taxpayers’ expense.

I noticed that Cllr Hall had developed the habit of claiming for journeys to Haverforwest to “meet RBE re Pembroke Museum”, “meet CE” and the like and I drew attention to this abuse of the system in my column.

Soon after, I had an anxious David Evans (editor of the WT) on the phone asking me to come in to see him about the letter he had received from Cllr Hall’s solicitors.

Having received several such communications over the years, demanding “an apology and and retraction within seven days otherwise our client will have no alternative but to seek redress against your newspaper through the courts”, I wasn’t much bothered, but Mr Evans clearly was.

When we owned the Mercury we had a short way with these threatening letters – we simply wrote back and said that our story was true/fair comment on a matter of public interest and that we looked forward to seeing their client in court.

As I explained to Mr Evans, this tactic had a 100% success rate and might usefully be deployed in the present case.

There was a snag, however – the WT had defamation insurance which required that any complaints of this nature had to be dealt with by the insurer’s solicitors – Lewis Silkin (London).

Obviously, an apology and retraction is a cheap way out for an insurance company, which is not likely to have press freedom at the top of its agenda.

Fortunately the chap at Lewis Silkin was made of sterner stuff and he wrote to Cllr Hall’s solicitors pointing out that, as journeys to “meet RBE re Pembroke Dock Museum” weren’t either duties “approved by the body” or duties “of a class so approved”, they were not approved duties under the Local Authorities (Members Expenses) Regulations 1991.

A week or so later, I received a letter from Lewis Silkin informing me of a development that meant, as they put it: “the rug had been pulled out from under our feet”.

This rug-puller was a letter that Mr Parry-Jones had sent to Hall’s solicitors informing them that he had given permission for Cllr Hall to make these journeys and, therefore, they were “approved duties”.

Mr Parry-Jones was relying on a resolution of the council at one of its very first meetings in 1995 when, on his recommendation, it redefined this general class of approved duties as “Attendance by the leader or other group leaders (or their nominated representative(s)) at such meetings approved by the Chief Executive for the proper discharge of the business of the authority”.

No doubt it was very useful for the chief executive to have the power to allow members unlimited opportunities to fill their boots by buzzing around the county at 50p per mile, but it had long been my view that it wasn’t legal (see statutory definition above).

The Chief Executive clearly thought otherwise, and he told Cllr Hall’s solicitors:

“As you and they no doubt appreciate, I have wide discretion in this context”,

and:

“Please be assured that I am in absolutely no doubt that these instances were approved duties in accordance with the statutory provisions as applied to the council’s scheme”.

This unwelcome development, led to a trip to London for a consultation with Lewis Silkin – paid for by the Western Telegraph, I should add. The solicitor took me for lunch at his club, just around the corner from his office, and I was pleasantly surprised to find he was one of those old-fashioned types who shared my belief in the rule of law.

As a result, he wrote to Hall’s solicitors accepting that, while the chief executive might have wide-ranging powers in the county of Pembrokeshire, his knowledge of constitutional law led him to believe that they couldn’t possibly extend to varying the words and meaning of statutes passed by Parliament.

He also asked for evidence that the leader (then Cllr Eric Harries) had actually nominated Cllr Hall to attend these meetings; details of the leader’s interest that led to his need to be represented; and minutes of the meetings that Cllr Hall had attended.

After that, the guns fell silent.

Contemporaneous reports on these events can be read at Idle threats, Legal eagles and Memory man.

There was a happy outcome, however, because more than a year later Pembrokeshire Radio wrote to all members of the county council seeking their support for its bid for a broadcasting licence.

Cllr Hall was one of those who replied:

“I have read in today’s Mercury that you have recruited [Old Grumpy] to present a weekly talk show. I have to tell you that my solicitors are pursuing a claim for defamation against [Old Grumpy] and his former employers [Newsquest Ltd, owners of the Western Telegraph and Milford Mercury] following a reference to me in an article by [Old Grumpy]. On this basis alone, I could not possibly support your application.”

Interestingly, this letter; written in a prose style that I wouldn’t normally associate with Cllr Hall, was typed by a council employee. When I queried this with the, then, Monitoring Officer, Huw James, I was told it was standard practice for the council to offer secretarial services to members in these circumstances.

Anyway, Cllr Hall’s claim was simply not true because at no time had he, or his solicitors, ever written to me, personally, about these allegedly defamatory articles in the Mercury.

In any case, as there is a twelve month limit on bringing actions for defamation, he was way out of time.

Knowing that the courts take a particularly dim view of defamatory statements aimed at a person’s ability to find employment, I decided to have a bit of fun. And when he failed to respond to my request for “an apology and retraction within seven days etc” I served him with a writ.

The result was that poor old Brian had to write out a cheque for the best part of three-and-a-half grand (see here). And that didn’t include his own costs.

Just shows, you shouldn’t go fighting above your weight, even when you have someone as influential as Mr Parry-Jones as your corner-man.

After I was elected in 2004, I started a campaign to have the council’s 1995 definition of approved duty replaced by the statutory definition. My first port of call was what was then known as the District Audit Service (now WAO) who told me that they had been assured by the council that their expense-claiming regulations complied with the statutory requirements.

This was a standard brush-off tactic by the DAS, as I will show in future posts.

Undeterred, I put down a notice of motion calling for the 1995 resolution to be rescinded and replaced by the exact words in the statute.

That came before the corporate governance committee in January 2007, when the committee, packed as it is with IPG toadies, resolved:

(a) That Council be advised not to adopt the Notices of Motion as the existing arrangements comply with the relevant Regulations.

(b) That Council be advised to note that in the forthcoming reprint of the Council’s Constitution the approved duty provisions previously adopted by the Authority will be included within Part 6 of the Constitution.

The full report can be read here.

And so on to full council on March 1 when it looked like my NoM would fall prey to the IPG block vote.

However, I had a stroke of luck because the estimable Mr John Hudson had been taking an interest in the matter and he had obtained a letter from DAS in which they said that there was no reason why anything other than the exact statutory definition should be used to define what was an approved duty.

And, when I fished a copy of this letter from my inside pocket and read it out, even the chief executive had to bow to superior force.

Oddjob and Goldfinger