1 February 2005

 

Freedom come

 

Old Grumpy is pleased to report an early success for the recently introduced Freedom of Information Act.
At the County Council meeting on December 16 last, members debated notices of motion submitted by Cllr Michael Williams and myself.
Cllr Williams called for the publication of the list of successfully completed contracts that accompanied the application by ORA Ltd (managing director Dr Michael Ryan) for the post of economic development consultant with the council.
My own, of which more next week, asked for the release of a statement given to the police by the Director of Finance during the investigation of Cllr Brian Hall's travelling expenses.
During the debate on ORA's CV, the Leader Cllr John Davies quoted extracts from a letter the council had received from Dr Ryan in which he claimed that he had been subject to harassment by Cllr Williams, myself and others.
Pre-Christmas requests for a copy of this letter, on the grounds that it was now in the public domain, were rebuffed by the council.
However, after a two week wait, an application under the FoI Act, which came into force on January 1, proved irresistible and Dr Ryan's three page missive is now to hand.
I notice that the word harassment makes no fewer than eight appearances.
This is a bit rich coming from a man who instructed his solicitors to write to Cllr Williams and me less than a week before Christmas 2003 giving us 14 days to retract the defamatory statements we had made about him; issue a formal written apology; and send him a cheque "for his legal costs to date in the sum of £3295.57 [each] together with additional expenses to be confirmed by our client shortly."
These letters were accompanied by an official-looking claim form purporting to be from the "High Court of Justice - Queen's Bench Division Cardiff District Registry" which recorded a court fee of £250 and solicitor's costs of £80.
In addition, printed at the foot of this document are the words : "Value - Damages will exceed £5,000 but will not exceed £15,000."
This claim form had no legal status, whatsoever, and its sole purpose was to put the frighteners on the two of us - harass us, even.
We had also both received similar menacing letters from Dr Ryan's solicitors in June 2003.
During that earlier episode, Dr Ryan's solicitors had been instrumental in having my website removed from the Internet.
Whether or not that qualifies as harassment I wouldn't like to say, but it was certainly an attack on something I value very highly - my right to freedom of speech.
Now we read in Dr Ryan's fortuitously-timed, three-page bleat to the Chief Executive (copy to Cllr John Davies) that "...all this harassment and false allegations has caused me to being forced to take legal advice which has cost me in excess of £14,500 to date and not once have these same people questioned my capability to perform the consultancy contract."
It is worth remembering that the £14,500 worth of legal advice was acquired in his failed attempt to bully Cllr Williams and I into silence.
Unfortunately for him, though he wasn't to know it at the time, I had an ace up my sleeve in the form of his fax of 16 October 2000 to Brian Hall (See Ryan Hall) which showed that he was planning to trade in Pembrokeshire in breach of an, apparently unsolicited, undertaking he had given to the council just six weeks earlier, on 3 September..
Furthermore, the contents of that fax show that the intention to trade in Pembrokeshire was formed some considerable time prior to October 16 and that he and Cllr Hall had already lined themselves up to manage an "International Investment Project aligned to Pembroke Dock redevelopment (my emphasis)"
After I sent a copy of this fax to his solicitors and advised them of my intention to use it in my defence to any libel action the threats abruptly ceased.
As for Dr Ryan's capabilities, they were basically what Cllr Williams was trying to find out about.
It is difficult to know what all the secrecy is about because on ORA's website (www.oriain.com) are listed over 40 "successfully completed major projects" in such far flung places as Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, New York and Rio de Janiero.
At the bottom of the page it says: "Comprehensive list of Clients and Projects available on request."
What inspired Cllr Williams' curiosity in the first place was an earlier version of the website that boasted of a successfully completed major project in Pembrokeshire.
But, when he emailed ORA to enquire where this local achievement could be inspected, no answer was forthcoming.
When others persisted in asking the same question the website was taken down for "reconstruction" and, lo and behold, when it eventually reappeared the successfully completed project in Pembrokeshire was no longer on the list.
However we have no need to concern ourselves too much about Dr Ryan's capabilities because, as evidenced by his fax to Cllr Hall, his willingness to double-cross the county council raises a far more fundamental issue - his integrity.
And you might wonder why, if I have made "false allegations" about him, as he claims in his letter to the Chief Executive, he hasn't taken steps to recoup his fourteen-and-a-half grand by carrying out his earlier threats to sue me for defamation.
I am not expecting a writ any time soon because Dr Ryan and his advisors have probably concluded that pulling the wool over the eyes of a High Court Judge will be a rather more challenging proposition than spinning a yarn to a credulous district auditor.
And, of course, it should be remembered that my investigation into Dr Ryan's inappropriate business relationship with Brian Hall was not his only source of stress because, last summer, Irish Defence Minister, Michael Smith, summarily removed him from the chairmanship of the Civil Defence Board of Ireland.
At the time, it was reported in the Irish press that Dr Ryan was intending to sue Mr Smith over his sacking, but nothing seems to have come of it (See: http://archives.tcm.ie/businesspost/2004/05/16/story20837826.asp and http://archives.tcm.ie/breakingnews/2004/06/25/story154196.asp) or type "Dr Michael Ryan Civil Defence Board" into Google.
I have now asked the Irish Defence Ministry for a copy of the O'Callaghan report into the activities of the Civil Defence Board, and its chairman, referred to in one of those articles.


Too late

The last paragraph of Dr Ryan's letter smacks of what the great rugby coach Caerwyn James referred to as "getting your retaliation in first".
It reads: "In 2000, I provided the County Council, in confidence, with a copy of this list [of successfully completed projects] but that was for the proper purpose of establishing my bona fides with your Council. I have always been happy for you to have this list, but i must ask you to maintain the commercially confidential nature of this document."
The significance of this is that one of the exemptions in the Freedom of Information Act is commercial confidentiality.
Whether this argument will stand up to the fact that Dr Ryan has been advertising the availability of this list to all and sundry on the Internet is a moot point.
What is certain is that if the council refuses to cough up I will be appealing that decision to the independent Information Commissioner.
From what I have read about FoI legislation and confidentiality in other Common Law jurisdictions, I rate my chances of success at considerably better than even money.
The principle seems to be that the confidentiality of the document must be clear from the outset.
Asserting it more than four years later seems like shutting the stable door after the horse has gone.

Spin on the rates

 

As one of those who was required to give their name and address after requesting a copy of the Ombudsman's report into the Stephanie Lawrence affair, I was amazed to read the explanation offered by a county council press spokesman and published in last week's Mercury.
According to the Mercury the spokesman had said: "...if addresses were taken it was only in order to post them [Ombudsman's reports] to those unable to collect them in person from County Hall."
This is simply not true because I was in the act of collecting a copy from the reception desk in County Hall when asked to give my name and address.
I know of two other people who had a similar experience.
With respect to the TV interview given by the leader, the spokesman said: "The interviewer asked if the leader could give a guarantee that the report would be freely available to anyone who wanted to read it. The leader was able to give this assurance as the Ombudsman's report is a public document."
Having reviewed a video recording of this interview, I can say that this is not an accurate account of events.
The leader was asked why members of the public requesting copies of the report had been asked to give their names and addresses.
The leader replied: "We have a responsibility to be aware of the interests for which they're being taken and used."
At that point the interview was interrupted by the officer acting as Cllr Davies' minder and the leader then gave the politically correct assurance that, being a public document, the report was freely available to anyone.
The council's press office is funded from the public purse.
In my opinion, that places a duty on press officers to provide honest, accurate information.
I have written to the Leader asking him if he concurs with that view.


Answers please

 

I have now received a response from Cllr Bill Roberts - Cabinet member for housing - to my letter of 22 December (see letter).
Regular readers will recall that Cllr Roberts was one of the Independent Political (sic) Group members who shouted me down during the December council meeting as I tried to make the case for the publication of a statement given to the police by the Director of Finance. (see shouted down).
Incidentally, I have since learned that the plan to employ these undemocratic tactics was hatched at the IPG's secret group get-together, prior to the meeting proper.
Cllr Roberts "reply"; a hastily scribbled note on a council compliments slip, reads: "Dear Mike, Thank you for your letter, the contents of which will be noted. Compliments of the season to you and your family. Bill"
All very pally.
However, my capacity for friendship with those who would deny me the right to free speech is somewhere between zero and vanishing point.
The facts, as I see them, indicate that Cllr Hall claimed £63 for journeys that he couldn't possibly have made (see Time Lord).
By publicly associating himself with a concerted attempt to obstruct my endeavours to discover the truth about this matter, Cllr Roberts finds himself in a dilemma: either he approves of Cllr Hall's behaviour, or he has some rational explanation as to how cllr hall managed to eat lunch and drive the 125 miles from Magor to Pembroke Dock in the 52 minutes between 1.08 pm and 2.00 pm.
I am writing to him again in an effort to find out which it is (see letter 2).
At least Cllr Roberts did acknowledge my letter which is more than can be said for his Cabinet colleague Cllr Islwyn Howells.
During that same debate, you will remember, Cllr Howells also interupted to suggest that the council's constitution should be changed to prevent people like me raising awkward questions at council meetings.
This in the World's oldest continous democracy [after the Isle of Man. Old Grumpette].
I will be also writing to Cllr Howells reminding him that I haven't had a reply to my earlier letter.
Must be careful, though, or I'll be accused of harassment.


Hot air

Climate change is back in the news following reports in the press that the temperature could rise by as much as 11 degrees by the end of the century.
And Stephen Byers (remember him?) was on the radio the other morning telling us, as chairman of the World Environmental Forum, or somesuch, that unless we mend our energy-guzzling ways within the next ten years we will have passed the point of no return and the Earth's temperature will spiral out of control.
We have to hope that Mr Byers is wrong because the chances of making the 60-80% cuts in energy use required to stabilise the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere within that time scale are beyond remote.
The trouble with the current debate on climate change is that an interesting hypothesis: that human-induced emissions of carbon dioxide are causing global warming via the so-called greenhouse effect, is being presented as fact.
Climate change is, in fact, the norm.
Ten thousand years ago we were in the final stages of an ice age.
From about 800-1200 AD we experienced the medieval warm period when the Danes farmed Greenland and vines flourished as far north as York.
That was followed by the Little Ice Age from about 1500-1800.
As a boy, I remember reading reprints of eighteen century newspaper reports in the West Cumberland Times telling of Derwentwater freezing over to such an extent that bonfires could be lit, and oxen roasted, on the ice.
Even the temperature record for the last century throws up data that cannot be explained by any simple correlation between carbon dioxide levels and temperature.
From about 1900-1940 the average temperature rose by about half a degree.
From 1940-1975 this trend went into reverse, prompting many of the same people who are now predicting a warming catastrophe to warn of a coming ice-age.
In about 1975 the Earth started to heat up again.
According to some scientists, ice-ages, which last about 100,000 years, are the norm and we are fortunate to be living in a short - 10,000 year - interglacial warm period.
These cycles, it is postulated, are largely caused by a combination of changes in the Earth's orbital distance from the sun and variations in the sun's output.
If this theory is correct we should now be in the early stages of another ice-age and it has been suggested by Professor Ruddiman of the University of Virginia that we would be if it wasn't for human activity over the past 2000-3000 years, such as deforestation, biomass burning and agriculture, that has warmed the world sufficiently to keep the ice at bay.
For anyone wanting a thorough scientifc appraisal of the issues underlying global warming, I recommend typing "Scientific alliance" into Google.


Seventies revisited?

 

I detect a mood of quiet optimism in the Principalty ahead of Saturday's big game against England.
Of course, the Western Mail always manages to stir up the troops in the week running up to an International but, while in the past few years this has had an element of whistling in the dark, this time it seems real.
And who can blame them.
England have picked a boy to play in the centre and with Wilkinson and Johnson missing they are nothing like the side that fluked the World Cup.
Looking down the England team list, the word "overrated" springs constantly to mind.
Dawson, Thompson and Robinson - all past their "sell by" dates.
Two props who are half-decent scrummagers but would be hard pressed to run 100 yards in under a minute.
As for the rest: a mixture of no-hopers and never-has-beens.
Still, I am not the sort of person to desert a sinking ship so, if any one wants to offer me ten points start for a fiver, just give me a ring.

 

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