The fat of the land

Old Grumpy has just completed his annual trawl through the County Council’s books particularly the members’ expense claims.

After much patient research I have established that during the course of the financial year 1999/2000 our elected representatives, collectively, claimed subsistence allowances for meals consumed while in our service on some 780 occasions.

The booklet issued to councilors in April 1999 contains the words: “Receipts should be obtained wherever possible and attached to claims as proof of expenses incurred” (their emphasis)

It appears that, on at least 760 occasions, providing a receipt proved impossible.

Somebody in the finance department has spotted this omission and has endorsed the claim forms “no receipts”

Despite this lack of evidence of “expenses incurred” the claims have been paid.

When I took up this matter with the District Audit service I was told that the words “whenever possible” meant the requirement to provide receipts was purely voluntary.

According to District Audit the tribunes of the people are the sole arbiters of what is possible in this context and what is not.

Needless to say, I cannot agree with this view.

For a start off, subsistence payments are described in the booklet as “reimbursements”.

Reimbursement, according to my Oxford dictionary means: repay (a person’s expenses).

Clearly, if you don’t know the exact amount spent you cannot possibly know how much to repay.

Of course, you could always take it on trust that the amount claimed was the amount expended but then you would have to believe that the members frequently forked out exactly £6.37 for their lunch, which is, coincidentally, the sum described in the booklet as the maximum. (Their emphasis)

Further evidence that the provision of receipts is obligatory is to be found in the claim form itself which includes a declaration signed by the member that: “I have actually paid the fares and made the other authorized payments shown and attach receipts to support my claim.” (Their emphasis again)

Another curious fact I discovered was that, of some 780 meals consumed by the 60 members, no fewer than 107 fell victim to the knife and fork of one man: Cllr Alwyn Luke.

The story of how the great gourmand managed to tuck into eight times his share of the free grub will have to wait for another time, and, possibly, another place.

Signing on?

Over the years I have collected a vast amount of data on councillors' expenses.

So much, indeed, that I have had to buy a shed in which to store it.

This information is extremely useful in that it can be used to construct" best value" performance indicators comparing one year with the next.

And where better to start than at the very top with the Chairman.

The Chairman for 1999/2000, Cllr Bryan Phillips, submitted a single expense sheet during his year of office, covering the period 15/7/99 - 22/10/99.

His predecessor, Cllr Alwyn Luke, put in no fewer than eight for the same three month period.

As you can imagine, the amount of money claimed varied proportionally (£144 to Cllr Phillips - £1,500 to Cllr Luke)

The area of activity which shows the greatest variability is something referred to as "Chairman's duties" such as "signing legal documents" for which Cllr Luke claimed on 36 occasions during the three months to Cllr Phillips' three.

There must be some reason for this vast productivity gap.

Old Grumpy can think of several possibilities..

1) There were fewer legal documents generated in Cllr Phillips' year.

2) Cllr Phillips was skiving and when he left office there were rooms full of unsigned papers.

3) Cllr Luke is a slow writer.

4) By popping down to Haverfordwest whenever he felt like it, Cllr Luke had hit upon a nice little earner (30 miles at 44p = £13.20 plus lunch at£6.37 = £19.57 in all)

I do, of course, have my own view on which might be the more likely explanation but having put the facts before you I will leave it to you, the jury, to decide.

Big eater

Another mole; this one from Old Grumpy's elite Fishguard directorate, informs me that recent revelations about Cllr Alwyn Luke's publicly-funded eating habits have earned the veteran councillor the nickname "monster lunch muncher" in one of the town's more popular watering holes.

"Monster" being used to describe the lunches and not Cllr Luke, I should add.

Recently, during a painstaking inspection of Cllr L's expense claims, I noticed an abrupt change in behaviour in October 1999.

Prior to October, the great man always claimed £6.37 "reimbursement" (which happens to be the maximum allowed) for lunch.

After submitting 57 such claims he then suddenly switched to claiming only £4.00, which he did on 40 occasions between October 1999 and March 2000.

It may be sheer coincidence but it was in October 1999 that I first drew attention to the dubious, though lucrative, practice of eating a £2.00 lunch in the subsidised canteen and then claiming £6.37 from the ratepayers.

I suppose a cut in the profit margin from £4.37 to £2.00 was at least a start.

To determine whether I could claim any credit for this saving required that other members' expense claims be scrutinised to see if they conformed to the same pattern.

Encouragingly, quite a few of them did.

For instance Cllr John Davies claimed six £6.37s up to October 28 and seven at £4.00 thereafter.

And Cllr Steve Watkins switched from £6.37 to £4.00 on the same date.

After tucking in to 18 £6.37 lunches the leader, Cllr Maurice Hughes, went on short commons, costing only £2.14 a throw, from November 2.

Elsewhere the evidence was rather more equivocal.

Cllr Bryn Colnett seems to have been ahead of the game.

After trousering 6x£6.37 up to 30 June 1999 he began to claim a more modest £2.10.

However, he reverted to claiming the max in August/September before finally opting for the path of righteousness, probably as a result of what I had written, in October.

Probably the most curious case of all was that of Cllr Mickey Folland of Tenby.

He pocketed £6.37 on 21 occasions up to October 1999 then submitted two claims for £4.00 before slipping back into his bad old ways for the rest of the financial year.

Cllr Folland has often been heard complaining that he can't get by on a councillor's meagre stipend, so presumably he was feeling the pinch.

Among those who carried on claiming £6.37 throughout the year was the present chairman Bill Hitchings - not easy to break the habit of a lifetime, I suppose.

So, the jury is still out on the question of whether or not my scribblings have had any effect and a more sophisticated statistical analysis will be required to resolve the issue one way or the other.

One hard fact, which did emerge from my researches, is that it costs the ratepayers more to feed Alwyn Luke than the 13 councillors representing Haverfordwest, Neyland and Milford Haven put together.

If the people of Scleddau insist on electing the monster lunch muncher, then they should have their council tax increased to help pay for his upkeep.

Luke the time traveller

Cyber-chums may remember that, about two months ago, a story appeared in the Western Telegraph regarding expense claims made by former county councillor David Edwards.

This was based on information gleaned from the County Council's books when they were open for inspection last October.

Mr Edwards had submitted duplicate mileage claims for half a dozen meetings he had attended when a member of the council.

This was hardly news because exactly the same story, with virtually the same provenance, had appeared in the Mercury some six months earlier.

There was one very important difference.

While the Telegraph's "scoop" was based on publicly available documents that in the Mercury was not.

It was founded on copies of Mr Edwards' expense claims, provided by the County Council outside the statutory audit period.

Recently, I rang the council to request sight of the current year's expenses claim forms and was told by Director of Finance Mark Lewis that I would have to wait until October 2001 when the books were open for audit.

So, why were these rules not adhered to in the case of Mr Edwards?

Sounds like a publicly funded dirty tricks campaign to me!

Not that it was much of a story anyway; councillors often make mistakes on their expense claims.

In the same year that Mr Edwards "transgressed", the highly respected member for Solva, Gordon Cawood, also claimed twice for a number of meetings.

Somebody in the finance department had simply put a line through these duplicated claims and written, "Already paid"

Why wasn't ex-councillor Edwards afforded the same treatment?

More evidence of dirty tricks, perhaps!

Two years ago during my trawl through the National Park's books I discovered that Cllr Rev Emyr Jones had duplicated a whole month's claims and had been paid twice.

I wrote a humorous piece about this, but at no time did I suggest, or even suspect, that this was a deliberate attempt to swindle the authority.

These double claims I have always regarded as examples of memory failure rather like forgetting where you have left your car keys.

Had they claimed for meetings that they hadn't attended that would be a different matter.

And that is exactly what happened in the case of Cllr Alwyn Luke, who is becoming something of a regular in this column (and there's much, much more to come).

He put in a claim for £19.60 in respect of attendance at a meeting of the Policy and Resources committee on 1 April 1999, including details of the time he left home and time returned.

The records show that he tendered his apologies to that meeting.

His activities on May 27 1999 were even more bizarre.

According to his expense claim he left home at 9.00 am to attend a 10 o'clock meeting of the Leisure and Sports committee, claiming £13.23 mileage allowance and £6.37 for lunch.

On the same day, his claim form reveals, he also left home at 2 pm and drove to Haverfordwest to attend the 2.30 pm meeting of the Cultural Services committee claiming another £13.23 mileage.

As he was at home at 2 pm he couldn't possibly fulfill the conditions for claiming lunch allowance " Four hours away from place of residence including the hours 12 noon-2 pm"

One possible explanation is that he owns a Tardis.

But much more plausible is that he made the whole thing up, because the minutes record that he tendered his apologies for both meetings.

Now forgetting where you left the car keys is one thing.

Remembering where you left a set of car keys that have never been in your possession is quite another.

Lunchgate

Just before Christmas, while attending a meeting of the County Council, I found myself being stared at constantly by Cllr Alwyn Luke.

During a Planning Committee meeting two weeks the same thing happened.

This time I stared back whereupon Cllr Luke twisted his face into an ugly snarl and mouthed what I, an inexpert lip reader, took to be "bastard".

Just in case Cllr Luke is in any doubt as to what I mouthed back I can tell him it was "fascist"
What is annoying Cllr Luke is that I have been telling the world about his expense claiming habits, particularly his seemingly inexhaustible appetite for taxpayer-funded lunches.

And I mean the world because, recently, in response to a piece I had written detailing his apparent ability to travel between Haverfordwest and Fishguard at twice the speed of light, I received an e-mail from a reader in Canada suggesting he should be called Luke Skywalker.

My correspondent also had ideas about who in the County Council is best fitted for the role of Darth Vader. Readers may e-mail me with their own suggestions.

As I hinted a few weeks ago, what I have so far revealed about the gourmand Luke is merely the tip of the iceberg.

There are, for example, several instances where Luke Skywalker appears to have made the journey to and from Haverfordwest by pony and trap.

Take the Public Protection Committee of 18 November 1999 when, according to his expense claim Cllr Luke left home at 8.30 am to attend the 10 o'clock meeting.

The minutes record that the meeting ended at 11.10 am and Snailwalker's expense sheet reveals that he arrived home at 2.30 pm enabling him to claim lunch allowance - "more than four hours away from place of residence including the hours 12 noon to 2.00 pm"

This particular meeting caught my eye because three of his colleagues from Fishguard were also present.

All three left home at 9.00 am.

Cllr Bryan Howells was back in Fishguard at noon. Cllr Lloyd Evans must be a bit of a boy-racer because he was home by 11.56, while Cllr Bryn Colnett seems to have stopped off for a pint at the Harp because he didn't make it back to base until 12.40.

The important thing is that none of them claimed lunch allowance.

Nor would Luke have been able to do so had he, as required by the rules, claimed only "reasonable travelling time".

Unless, of course, three hours twenty minutes is considered reasonable to complete the 16 mile journey.

If this was a solitary example I might put it down to an honest mistake but I have identified at least a dozen occasions when Cllr Luke took more that two hours to complete the homeward leg.

It wouldn't matter how long he took except that he used these protracted journey times as the basis for claiming for lunch.

If he wants to use County Hall as a Day Centre that is his business, but he shouldn't be allowed to do so at public expense.

The question that I have been wrestling with over the past few months is whether to post the full details of his shady activities on this website, or whether they deserve a more formal setting.

His attempt to intimidate me has only served to increase the iron in my soul.

Out to munch

My friends in Fishguard have been asking what has become of the "Monster Lunch Muncher'', Councillor Alwyn Luke, who used to feature regularly in this space.
Readers may remember that he acquired this nickname after I revealed details of his inordinate fondness for taxpayer-funded lunches.
During the financial year 1998/99, when he was chairman of the authority, he dined out at our expense on 145 occasions and in 1999/2000 he treated himself to 107 free meals.
You can judge the scale of the Muncher's liking for free grub by the fact that, in 1999/2000 the other 59 members are only managed 500 lunches between them.
Alas, the glare of publicity seems to have dulled his appetite, because last year (2000/2001) he managed only a modest 24 visits to the trough.
Perhaps, he's on a sponsored slim.
Gone too is the practice of nipping back to Fishguard between morning and afternoon meetings - 32 miles at 45 p (£14.40) being more lucrative than claiming for lunch (maximum £6.37) - especially as it is impossible to check if the journey has actually been made.
On one occasion this turnaround was accomplished in such short order that I had reason to ask if a Tardis qualified as a vehicle under the Member's Allowances Regulations.
This Tardis theory is not as daft as it seems because I have come across evidence that one of Councillor Luke's colleagues has also mastered the difficult business of being in two places at the same time.
But that story will have to wait for last week.
Despite the dramatic drop in Luke's consumption schedule it seems that he has not yet kicked the habit of claiming lunch allowances to which he is not entitled.
The rules state, quite clearly, that to qualify for a free lunch the member has to be on an "approved duty'' and be absent from his "normal place of residence" for "more than four hours including the hours 12 noon to 2pm".
When calculating these hours members are allowed to add " reasonable" (council's emphasis) travelling time.
Last year I detailed several instances (more than 15) when meetings that Councillor Luke attended concluded before 12.30 but where, nevertheless he claimed for lunch on the basis that he didn't get back home until 2:30pm or 3 o'clock i.e. that it took him two hours or more to cover the 16 miles back to Fishguard.
Now, there is nothing that says a member must jump in his car straight after a meeting and drive home.
But if he or she chooses to hang around County Hall; using the place as a Day Centre, then, however congenial that might be, it is not an " approved duty '' and therefore cannot possibly count towards the qualifying period for a subsistence allowance.
Otherwise, the old boys would be never away from the place.
I had thought that, having had all this explained to him last year, Councillor Luke might have mended his ways.
But, no!
When I checked his current claim forms, last week, I found 12 occasions when he claimed lunch though the meeting ended at least an hour before 2 o'clock.
I can only assume that he is either a slow learner or an even slower driver.

 

Crooked road

During my trawl through the County Council's books I came across a claim submitted by Councillor John Davies in respect to an 18 mile return journey from Haverfordwest to Milford Haven on October 17th, 2000.
Alongside the claim he had written: " Councillors Luke, R Folland and a D G Thomas travelled with me ''.
You don't need me to tell you where I looked next!
And I wasn't disappointed.
There was Luke claiming mileage for the same journey - the only difference being that he couldn't resist the temptation to gild the lily by claiming 20 miles for the trip.
It brought to mind a description I once read of the typical small-time crook: " Not bright enough to earn an honest living. Not honest enough to go straight ".