February 16 2012

The grapevine

During my long absence, the county council's rumour mill has been buzzing with activity.
Old Grumpy considers it his duty to use his inside knowledge to inform the public whether these rumours have any relation to fact and whether there is any likelihood that they will come to fruition.
1. County Council leader Cllr John Davies is pitching to become the Tory party's candidate at November's elections for police commissioner.
For:
Cllr Davies has announced his intention to stand down as Leader at May's election and it is unlikely that someone with his highly-developed appetite for power would be planning a future tending the roses.
Against:
Cllr Davies is not a Tory party member.
When the last Labour government proposed elected police chiefs back in 2008, Cllr Davies, in his capacity as Leader of the Welsh Local Government Association, put out a press release condemning the whole idea.
Verdict:
Worth an each-way flutter

2. Cllr Jamie Adams is to take over as Leader of the County Council after the May election.
For:
Cllr Adams is currently joint deputy Leader of the Council.
Looking across the ranks of the IPG, there is not much by way of competition.
Against.
Cllr Adams is not popular with some IPG members (see 3 below).
The IPG may not have a majority after the election.
Verdict: There's many a slip twixt cup and lip.

3. There are moves afoot to form a new political group (Pembrokeshire Alliance?) made up mainly, but not entirely, of disaffected members of the IPG.
For:
The names I have heard mentioned either don't currently have a Special Responsibility Allowance (SRA), or are likely to lose their present allowances in a post-election reshuffle.(see 2 above).
Against:
If this new group is formed, but fails to get enough seats to hold the balance of power, its members will have completely burned their boats.
Verdict:
Discretion will be seen to be the better part of valour. Some deal will be cobbled together - after all there are more than enough SRAs and other paid positions to go around (30 at the last count). Turkeys don't vote for Christmas.


And while we're on the subject of rumours I hear that Harry Redknapp is about to turn down the £4m-a-year England manager's job.
The word is that Price Waterhouse Cooper have offered him a vastly larger salary to act as their senior tax consultant.

Tory story

I have it on very good authority that the Tories are not going to repeat the disastrous experiment of the 2008 elections by fielding candidates in hopeless seats in order to make it appear that they are in opposition to the IPG (Election lowdown )
Instead, I am told, they intend to run about a dozen candidates in winnable seats.
Should they be successful - and, given that all four national seats are held by the party, there is every reason for optimism - they could become by far the biggest opposition party.
And, if they can persuade the four card-carrying Tories who now sit on the IPG benches (Cllrs David Wildman, David Bryan, Mark Edwards and Elwyn Morse) to come over, they could be a formidable force.
This would not be a new experience for Cllrs Wildman and Edwards who were originally elected under the Tory banner but, for whatever reason, abandoned the party in favour of the IPG.
Of course, it would mean Cllrs Wildman and Bryan giving up their SRA's, but what's a few thousand quid when important democratic principles are at stake?


Taxing times

Talking of a few thousand quid, you might have noticed the story in the Western Telegraph about the decision of the county council's senior staff committee to allow chief officers to opt out of the local government pension scheme in order to avoid tax.

MINUTES of a MEETING of the SENIOR STAFF COMMITTEE held in
COUNTY HALL, HAVERFORDWEST on WEDNESDAY, 28 SEPTEMBER
2011 at 2.30p.m.
Present:
Councillors J T Davies (Chairman), J S Allen-Mirehouse (Vice-Chairman),
J L Adams, S T Hudson, Susan Perkins and D Wildman.

5. Exclusion of the Public
RESOLVED
That in accordance with Section 100A (4) of the Local Government Act 1972, the public be excluded from the meeting for consideration of the following items of
business on the ground that they involve the likely disclosure of exempt information as defined in Paragraph 12 of Part 4 of Schedule 12A to the Act and that the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest
in disclosing the information.

6. Pensions Arrangements
Having convened in private session under the terms of Paragraph 12 of Part 4 of Schedule 12A to the Local Government Act 1972, the Committee considered a
report regarding the effects upon pension contribution arrangements of recent changes in taxation provisions affecting higher earners and which had imposed limitations and penalties on the levels of annual contributions and the taking of benefits. As a consequence, at certain points in their careers, staying as active contributing members of the pension scheme would create substantial tax liability for individuals (including on promotion), thereby reducing incentives for
recruitment.
In order to aid recruitment and retention, it was suggested that individuals in this position should be given the option of receiving the equivalent of the employer’s contribution so that they make their own alternative arrangements for saving for
retirement. This would be on the basis that there would be no additional cost in relation to the Authority’s existing contractual obligations to those individuals.
RESOLVED
That the option set out above be made available to senior staff on the basis that no additional cost accrues to the Council.

I have no idea what the tax angle is, but I have difficulty in working why the public interest is best served by holding the debate on this issue in private, especially as the minutes are required to be published.
I would have thought that members of the public would be interested to see how their elected members voted on this matter.
Of course it is important that "no additional cost accrues to the council"
But there is a wider issue in that there is a cost to the tax authorities..
Presumably, the government brought in these tax changes to raise extra revenue.
That aim has been frustrated by the committee's decision.
And, seeing that the council obtains some 80% of its revenue from central government, it is questionable whether such a tax avoidance scheme is strictly ethical.
Also, of necessity, if senior council officers are paying less tax, the only way the exchequer can balance the books is by getting someone else to pay more.
I have made two attempts to have the council's constitution changed to curtail the plenary powers of the senior staff committee.
In July 2006, I proposed that its powers be limited to making recommendations to full council.
That went down to a heavy defeat with 36 of the 37 IPG members voting against (the 37th abstained).
I tried again in December last year with similar results except that, as a concession, the Leader proposed that these matters should be transferred to the Corporate Governance committee.
His group has a 4-2 majority on the senior staff committee and an 8-4 majority on corporate governance so, as the mathematicians among you will already have worked out this concession amounted to twice the square root of b----- all.
At least when the recorded vote was taken last December there was a sizable rebellion in the ranks of the IPG - well, four actually (Cllrs Mike Evans, Maureen Molyneux, Pearl Llewellyn and Miles Pepper).
Interestingly, two members (Cllrs Ken Rowlands and Umelda Havard) who supported my proposal in 2006 voted against in 2011.
This change of mind might be attributed to the fact that in the meantime they have abandoned Labour and embraced the IPG. Full marks for party loyalty.
But perhaps the strangest thing was that the four Tories present divided 2-2. Not easy to understand when you consider that giving these powers to all councillors is official party policy.

Once more into the breach


While I have been away, I have received two Ombudsman's reports - one into my complaint that Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse had twice failed to declare an interest at a national park meeting where a proposal to compensate him for £40,000 in legal costs was on the agenda, and the other into his complaint that I had brought the office of councillor into disrepute by criticising the Independent Political Group on this website and publishing a confidential national park report.
Incidentally, Cllr Allen-Mirehouse's complaint against me was made just as the Ombudsman's investigation into my complaint was reaching its conclusion.
For the record, the Ombudsman upheld both my complaints and also found against me with regard to the publication of the confidential National Park report. As for showing disrespect to members of the IPC the Ombudsman accepted that this website is written in my private capacity and, therefore, the Code of Conduct is not engaged.
In both cases the Ombudsman decided that no further action was required.
A more comprehensive analysis of these two reports will have to wait for another day.
As can be seen by the exchange of e-mails with the Ombudsman's office reproduced below, it has proved rather difficult to get the Ombudsman to give a clear indication as to whether his two reports are in the public domain.

September 28, 2011

I am in receipt of your letter of 26 September 2011 and the enclosed Ombudsman's report on Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse's complaint against me.
I am disappointed that the Ombudsman has decided not to refer the matter to the county council's standards committee/adjudication panel thereby depriving me of the opportunity to clear my name.
I will be responding fully in due course.
In the meantime, I would be grateful if you could advise me whether the Ombudsman's report, and the earlier one, dated 4 February 2011, regarding my complaint against Cllr Allen-Mirehouse, are now in the public domain?

Regards

Mike Stoddart

5 October 2011

Are you now in a position to respond to the question in the final paragraph of my e-mail of 28 Sept?

Regards

Mike Stoddart.

 

11 October 2011

Dear Councillor Stoddart,

I apologise for the delay in responding to your emails.

The Ombudsman does not publicise reports on code of conduct investigations on our website. However, once a matter is concluded if a particular report is requested, he will supply a copy of it ensuring that personal details (eg addresses, personal telephone numbers) are redacted.

I hope that this of help to you.

18 October 2011

Thank you for your email.
I am already in possession of both reports referred to in my email of 28 Sept.
All I need to know is whether I am now free to discuss these reports on my website?

Thanks
Mike Stoddart

18 October 2011

Councillor Stoddart,

It is a matter entirely for you. Please be mindful of your obligations under the Code of Conduct.

Regards,

19 October 2011

I would be grateful if you could give me a clear indication as to whether or not these two report are now in the public domain.
It would also be helpful if you could indicate which sections of the Code of Conduct might be engaged should I choose to publish these reports on my website.

regards

Mike Stoddart

19 October 2011

Dear Councillor Stoddart,

As I previously stated the Ombudsman does not generally place his reports in the public domain. It is a matter for you whether you wish to reproduce some or all of the reports. This would not necessarily lead to a breach of the Code of Conduct, provided that you did not bring your authority into disrepute, paragraph 6(1)(a), or you sought to gain an advantage for yourself or a disadvantage for another, paragraph 7(a).

I hope this helps?

 

I must say I found all this all rather vague, but I have decided to take the plunge.
In any case, it seems to me that, as a matter of principle, Ombudsman's reports which find that elected members have breached the Code of Conduct should be in the public domain.
In the case of my own "breach", I am only sorry that the Ombudsman decided that no further action was required thereby depriving me of the opportunity to contest what I consider to be an infringement of my right to freedom of speech before the council's standards committee or adjudication panel for Wales and, if necessary, the High Court.
As I said earlier the complaint against me was made by Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse.
So that nobody can accuse me of cherry-picking, his complaint is reproduced in full below.
I have numbered the paragraphs for ease of future reference.
My replies to the Ombudsman are in italics and my additional comments are in bold

1. Cllr Stoddart writes and maintains a website under the title "Old Grumpy". In my opinion this website systematically and deliberately brings the office of councillor and the local authority into disrepute.

I am the controller and sole contributor to the website www.oldgrumpy.co.uk.
The copies of my web pages provided as evidence by Cllr Allen-Mirehouse (Cllr A-M) are all more than a year old and several of the other matters about which he complains go back way before that.
Why has he taken so long to complain?


2 The instances in which he refers to my fellow councillors as "serial expense fiddlers" and suchlike are legion and I would ask you to review generally his comments on the website www.oldgrumpy.co.uk His total contempt for other members - particularly members of the independent group - is evident throughout.

I stand by all the comments on my website, including describing one or more of my fellow members as "Serial expense fiddlers."
If Cllr A-M would provide details of his specific complaints about my use of this term, I will be happy to provide the evidence to back my words.
[He never did]

3. Some of these relate to me and other colleagues including Cllr John Davies (leader); Brian Hall; Huw George and former councillors Maurice Hughes, Alwyn Luke and Bill Hitchings. I think these all exhibit a total lack of respect for other councillors and go a long way beyond the realm of of fair and robust comment about political opponents.

Whether my comments are fair hinges on whether there is evidence to substantiate them. I would contend that the truth cannot, by definition, be unfair.
I think there is some confusion about this respect business. The Judge in a criminal trial will respect the right of the defendant to a fair trial. That doesn't mean he respects the defendant in the wider sense of the word.

4. I would however, particularly draw your attention to what I consider a serious breach of the Code of Conduct whereby Cllr Stoddart has published details of a report produced by the Monitoring Officer of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority which was marked "private and confidential" and was considered by the Authority in private after passing a motion excluding the public under Schedule 12A of the Local Government Act 1972.

See under 6 below

5. It is clear that Cllr Stoddart is aware of the requirements for non-publication of this material but he has ignored it.

See under 6 below

6. I find it hard to believe that he is not aware of the provenance of this document which he has scanned and published on his website and from which he has quoted extensively. He is fond of quoting Clause 6 (1) (c) of the Code of Conduct which requires members to report conduct by another member which he reasonably believes breaches the Code.It is my view that he has breached this by failing to report the name of the provider of this confidential report to him.

The document was delivered anonymously by post to my home address.
As I am not aware of the identity of the 'leaker', I have no evidence on which to base a complaint under 6 (1) (c).
However, I would like to think that whoever provided me with these documents was concerned that I should be aware of what Cllr A-M had said about me in his letter to the monitoring officer dated 8 July 2008 in which he sets out the case for reimbursement of his legal costs incurred during a previous appearance before the Adjudication Panel.
In that letter , Cllr A-M states: "You will be aware of the protracted and complicated history of the charges brought against me which were in fact rejected twice - once following an investigation by the Ombudsman and the police and secondly by the Tribunal. The allegations made by Cllr Stoddart were twice found to be utterly unjustifiable."
This statement, which is inaccurate in several respects, is clearly designed to discredit me by suggesting that the tribunal case against him resulted from a malicious complaint by me.
The truth, as the Ombudsman can verify from his own records, is somewhat different.
Briefly, I made a complaint to the Ombudsman, who referred the matter to the police
[Because failure to declare a pecuniary interest was, at the time, a criminal offence].
More than two years later, in a letter dated 24 September 2004, the Ombudsman informed me that the police had concluded that there was "insufficient evidence to pursue a criminal investigation against Cllr Allen-Mirehouse." and that he was not proceeding to an investigation because : "He [Cllr Allen-Mirehouse] has stated [to the police, presumably] that he has not applied for permission to develop any land and there is no evidence that he has any land which would be affected by the adoption of the [homes for locals] policy within the National Park."
The question of Cllr A-M's ownership of land that might be affected by the policy was one of the disputed facts at the tribunal's pre-hearing held on 7 March 2007 but during the actual tribunal Cllr A-M's QC stated that it "it had never been disputed that Councillor Allen-Mirehouse owned land that was capable of being developed when he participated in the relevant meetings of the National Park Authority."
So who was disputing this at the pre-hearing is not at all clear. Certainly it was not the Ombudsman because his whole case was based on his finding that Cllr A-M had development land within the NP that could be affected by the homes for locals policy
So, if my reading of the Ombudsman's letter of 24 September 2004 is correct, the police investigation was concluded on the basis of a misleading statement by Cllr A-M . And, based on the findings of the police, the Ombudsman declined to investigate.
Following receipt of the Ombudsman's letter of 24 September 2004, I visited the National Park offices and inspected the files on the JUDP process in which I discovered two letters from Cllr A-M's agents seeking the inclusion of land which he owned within the village limits of Angle.
I sent these documents to the Ombudsman who launched a new investigation during which a third letter, in similar vein, was discovered in the National Park's files.
At the conclusion of that investigation, the Ombudsman found that Cllr A-M had breached the Code - a conclusion that was overturned by the Adjudication Panel tribunal.
The question that continues to bother me is why, after this evidence came to light, the Ombudsman didn't refer the matter back to the police. And why, by agreement between the Ombudsman and Cllr Allen-Mirehouse's QC, his statement to the police was excluded from the evidence before the adjudication panel.

Also, I would point out that Cllr A-M seems to be operating double standards with regard to private and confidential documents.
He was Pembrokeshire County Council's representative on the board of Milford Haven Port Authority (MHPA) when it was given confidential draft Cabinet minutes during the
competitive bidding process for the sale of Milford Haven Mine Depot.
I don't recall Cllr A-M complaining about that breach of confidentiality ( see MHPA Docs.)
At this stage , I didn't think it necessary to point out that, as I was not a member of the National Park Authority, I was not bound by its Code of Conduct. And, as the confidentiality requirements in the Code apply only to information that comes into a member's possession during the course of their duties, confidential National Park information was not caught by the rules.

7.It is also clear from the last sentence of Document B (see Open Secret) that it is his intention to undermine the whole process by which authorities consider matters in private. I believe he was also seeking to influence members of the National Park authority in making their subsequent decision.

I assume Cllr A-M is referring to the sentence which begins "Old Grumpy would suggest etc. . ."
It is true that I believe the provisions of the Local Government (Access to Information) Act, which allow authorities to exclude the public and press in certain circumstances, are overused.
But I cannot agree with his implied suggestion that, as an elected member, I am somehow debarred from campaigning for greater openness
As for "seeking to influence the members," at no time did I either express a view of what the decision should be, or encourage or incite anyone else to promote such a view.
However, the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority is a publicly-funded democratic institution and anyone is at liberty to seek to influence its decisions.

 

8.I have attached documents A,B,C and D which are his website entries for June 25th, July 2nd, July 23rd and July 29th 2009. I have highlighted the headlines of those which refer to me and this particular issue.

No Comment
I was surprised to discover that Cllr A-M was such an avid reader of my website.

9. As even a cursory examination of the "Old Grumpy" website will show, this issue is but an example of the way in which Cllr Stoddart thinks it is appropriate to behave in his capacity as a councillor.

No Comment
At a later stage in the Ombudsman's enquiry, I did point out that I had been writing under the name of Old Grumpy for some 12 years before I became a councillor, four of them on this website, and that this website is written in my private capacity and not as Cllr A-M tries to suggest "in my capacity as a councillor" . This point was conceded by the Ombudsman.

10.Below is the comment to be found on the front page of his website.
"The website that aims to keep you up to speed with the shady backstairs dealings within Pembrokeshire County Council and other public bodies.
Please feel free to copy and quote any material on this website".
I submit that the tone of that comment is sufficient in itself to prove that Cllr Stoddart has breached the Code of Conduct,

This statement does appear on my website.
I cannot see how my comment inevitably leads to Cllr AM's conclusion.
There is a clear distinction between reporting disreputable behaviour and bringing the authority in to disrepute.


11. You will be aware that Pembrokeshire County Council is held in high regard by the Welsh Audit Office and the Welsh Assembly Government and I shall be happy to provide you with the WAO audit letters. The probity of this county council, its members and officers is beyond reproach.

There is no necessary connection between efficient government and democratic government.
Cllr A-M's claim was made before the publication of the Estyn and CSSIW reports which highlighted serious failings in both the council's child protection procedures and its democratic culture. If he made the same statement today, he would be laughed out of court.

12 On a personal note Cllr Stoddart has made made multiple complaints against me over the past dozen or so years to, among others, the Lord Chancellor, Dyfed Powys Police, the fraud squad, District auditor and of course the Ombudsman. None of these has been substantiated but they have been very costly, time-consuming and very wearing.

Taking these complaints in turn:
(a) Lord Chancellor (LC).
I did make a complaint to the LC following Cllr A-M's appointment to the magistracy.
This appointment followed closely on a report by the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park's (PCNP) monitoring officer which found that, by writing to his fellow PCNP members regarding a planning application on land that he owned, which was under consideration by the PCNP planning committee, Cllr A-M had breached the Code of Conduct.
I suggested to the LC's department that someone who failed to observe his own authority's Code of Conduct was not a fit and proper person to sit in judgment of his fellow citizens and, in certain circumstances, deprive them of their liberty
I also discovered on the LC's website that applicants to join the bench were required disclose any matter in their background which might "bring the magistracy into disrepute."
The LC's office confirmed that Cllr A-M had not informed the department about the adverse monitoring officer's report.
The LC's office agreed with me that this matter should have been disclosed, but did not consider the breach of sufficient seriousness to warrant Cllr A-M's removal from the bench.
However, the LC's department informed me that Cllr A-M had been given a warning as to his future conduct.

(b) Dyed Powys Police
To the best of my knowledge, I have never complained to the police about Cllr A-M
I think he may be referring to the police investigation following my previous complaint to the Ombudsman. That matter was referred to the police by the Ombudsman, not by me.
If Cllr A-M believes my recollection is faulty, can he please provide details?

(c) Fraud squad as (b) above.

(d) District Auditor as (b) above.

He failed to substantiate any of these three claims.

(e) Ombudsman.
I did report Cllr A-M to the Ombudsman, who found he had breached the Code of Conduct by failing to declare an interest during a meeting of the PCNP, where the "homes for locals" policy was debated..
The Adjudication Panel disagreed with the Ombudsman's conclusions.


13. In case you have any doubt, Cllr Stoddart has makes regular references on the website to his membership with his own - to my mind - peculiar view of events in council meetings. He also uses the nom-de-plume as his email address. It is published as his email address on the county council's website in the list of councillors.

I have written under pseudonym Old Grumpy since 1992. [12 years before I became a councillor subject to the Code of conduct]
Firstly, in the Milford Mercury, which was then owned by my wife and family, and since 2000, on the Web.
The column is written in my private capacity.
Cllr AM is entitled to think I have my "own peculiar view of events in council meetings", but I can't see how this has any relevance to his complaint unless he believes any views contrary to his own constitute a breach of the Code.
My email address oldgrumpy.mike@virgin.net predates my membership of Pembrokeshire County Council by a number of years.
The attempt to use my email address to somehow cement the website to my role of county councillor is thin gruel indeed.
The significance of this is to be found in the Code. Showing disrespect only applies when a member is acting in his capacity as a councillor.
So this attempt to marry my email address to the county council's website is designed to bring me within the Code by showing that my website was somehow part of my duties. I must admit, I had no idea that Cllr A-M was so well acquainted with these legal niceties. As I will attempt to demonstrate in the coming weeks, his own conduct shows little sign of any understanding of the finer points of the Code.

Problem page.

With England facing Wales in just over a weeks time, and Jonathan Davies predicting we will be smashed, it isn't as if I don't have troubles enough of my own.
But, as Adam Smith taught us, the world would be a much better place if we all took other people's problems as seriously as our own.
A reader writes:
Dear Old Grumpy,
For the past month or so I have gone to the supermarket every single day and bought a litre of vodka and a dozen cans of larger. Am I in danger of becoming a shopaholic?
Old Grumpy replies.
Yes, and the fact that you always buy exactly the same goods suggests a serious compulsive behaviour disorder.