November 30 2004

 

The non-political political party

Sorry to be late again, but I was detained at Corporate Governance Committee - and a pretty depressing business it was, too.
I suppose the highlights of the afternoon were the interventions of Deputy leader, Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse's.
It appears Squirehouse has been reading a book on 'O' level rhetoric because he has hit upon a new debating technique which is to accuse his opponents of asking questions and then complaining when the answers don't suit their purposes.
He was clearly much taken with this new intellectual toy because he used it no fewer than four times during Tuesday's meeting.
In fact he showed all the signs of becoming a one-trick pony.
I am proud to say that, together with Plaid Cymru leader, Cllr Michael Williams, I was the chief target.
Cllr Williams' persistent references the "Independent Political Party" during Tuesday's meeting finally brought the best out of the Deputy Leader.
"We are the Independent group" Squirehouse insisted.
"Independent Political Group" Cllr Williams retorted.
For a while these two terms were batted back and forward like a tennis ball until the two of them settled for a mutually agreed draw.
As self-appointed umpire, Old Grumpy has to declare Cllr Williams the winner.
And this is a matter of law, not my biased opinion.
The relevant legislation is to be found in the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 which, according to my Cross on Local Government Law, provides: "A political group comprises two or more members who give written notice of their wish to be treated as a group. It must have a leader and deputy leader."
I have actually seen the form signed by the 38 so-called independents.

It reads:

"Local Government and Housing Act 1989
Local Government (Committees and Political Groups) Regulations 1990.
Notice of constitution of a Political Group.
To [Chief Executive]
We, the undersigned, being members of the Council of the County of Pembrokeshire
HEREBY GIVE YOU NOTICE that we wish to be treated as a political group for the purposes of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989.
The name of the political group shall be [Independent]"
It is easy to see why councillors who ran around at election time proclaiming themselves as Independent Independents would be sensitive about their electors finding out that they are now members of a political group, but there's no escaping the truth.
As for Cllr Allen-Mirehouse, he is the Chairman.
Whether he is party chairman or group chairman hardly matters.
Indeed, the only discernible difference between the Independents and the regular political parties is that the latter are based on some sort of shared ideology while the independents are united by nothing more than the lust for power.
That is why they vote with such terrifying unanimity - believing in nothing, they have nothing to disagree about.
Having said that, I have an confession to make: Cllr Malcolm Calver and I; the only two truly independent members of the council, have been in secret talks about forming ourselves into a political group.
We even progressed as far as agreeing a name: "The we are not a political group group", but negotiations broke down when we fell out over who would be Leader.
It was suggested that we should spin up, but he insisted on using his ten-pence piece and I insisted on using mine.
Can anyone think of a way out of this impasse?

 

Dual purpose

 

One of the items on the agenda was a Notice of Motion from Cllr Michael Williams calling for the publication of a letter sent by Cllr Brian Hall to the then Leader Maurice Hughes on 20 September 2000.
This letter is mentioned three times in the District Auditor's report into the relationship between Cllr Hall and Dr Michael Ryan.
In this letter, Cllr Hall is supposed to have told the Leader of his intention to go into business with Dr Michael Ryan.
It is my considered opinion that this letter was got up afterwards in an attempt to show that Hall had been open and above board about his relationship with the council's Irish-based economic development consultant.
With regard to this letter, the Director of Support Services' report to the committee says: "The letter referred to was made available to the District Auditor. It was a private letter between Councillors Hall and Hughes. It was not made known to Council officers and therefore formed no part of the Council's procedures relating to interests. It is not in the Council's possession and its wider disclosure or otherwise is, therefore, a matter for the writer and/or recipient."
Now, there is a subtle difference between the Director's description of this letter and that of the Auditor.

At paragraph 28 the DA says: "Subsequently Cllr Hall provided us with a private letter he wrote to the Leader (My emphasis)dated 20 September 2000 setting out that he was going into business with Dr Ryan."

And at paragraph 33 he says: "In his private letter dated 20 September 2000, Cllr Hall informed the Leader (my emphasis) that he was going into business with Dr Ryan who was employed as a consultant by the Council. The Leader (my emphasis) confirms he received the letter at the time."

Furthermore, at paragraph 47: "Towards the end of our review Cllr Hall also provided us with a copy of a private letter he sent to the Leader (my emphasis) dated 20 September 2000 as referred to above."

So what we have, in effect, are two letters: one to the Leader for purposes of the Auditor's whitewash of the Hall/Ryan relationship, and a private version for the purposes of resisting Cllr Williams' request for publication.
Of course, if it was a letter to the Leader, in his official capacity, it should have been passed on to the new Leader when Maurice Hughes was kicked out by the electorate.
And if it was a private and personal [secret] letter to Maurice Hughes "which formed no part of the Council's procedures relating to interests" it had no business in the Auditor's report at all.
Not that these arguments have the slightest relevance because the Independent Political Group have eight of the 12 votes - nine out of 12 if you count Cllr Simon Hancock who is nominally Labour but seems to be undergoing a crisis of identity brought on, I suspect, by the Leader's decision to appoint him Chairman of one of the Scrutiny Committees (Special Responsibility Allowance £9000 a year).
I'm afraid I can't do justice to this subject in a short piece like this and if you want a more comprehensive account of Pembrokeshire politics I would recommend George Orwell's 'Animal Farm'.
, according to the Auditor's report: "The Chief Executive told us that Cllr Hall had sought a meeting with him in early Autumn 2000 [nice and vague] when he outlined his recently formed relationship with Dr Ryan and their emerging intention to form a company. The Chief Executive satisfied himself that Cllr Hall appreciated the requirements of the then Code of Conduct and particularly the need for Cllr Hall not to conflict any duties he might have as a company director with his responsibilities as a councillor. Cllr Hall gave appropriate assurance and undertakings at that meeting making clear that if he started acting as a company director, he would ensure that his business interests and Council duties would be kept separate."

Unfortunately, Cllr Hall doesn't seem to have kept this promise because by mid-Autumn (16 October 2000, to be precise) Dr Ryan was writing to him outlining their well-advanced plans to clean up in Pembrokeshire by using Cllr Hall's local knowledge: "In your new position you would also come across some small businesses, which may require small amounts of capital injection, and again we could move in and take over majority shareholding for little investment but with our core skills turnaround these businesses quite rapidly knowing the future prospects for the area."(see Hall-Ryan)

Indeed, as less than four weeks separate 20 September (when Hall supposedly wrote to the Leader) and October 16 (when Ryan wrote to Hall) it seems extremely likely that Hall's promise to avoid any conflict of interest is a complete sham.

 

Censored

Last week, I wrote about my efforts to get my web address published alongside my other details on the County Council's website.
At the foot of each members' entry there was an item "web link" and in brackets alongside "(none at present)"
There was one exception to this format: Cllr David Wildman whose website www.davidwildman.com had a direct link.
I had sent three emails to the Webmaster in an attempt to have this situation remedied.
But it wasonly after I emailed the Monitoring Officer to complain about this apparent discrimination that action was taken, though not of the sort I wanted.
Last week I received an email from Mr David Thomas, Director of Marketing and Communications, who, it seems, in addition to his role as the council's spin doctor and overseeing Dr Ryan's contract, also has the power to determine whether members can have their websites linked through the County Council's website.
Bad news, I'm afraid, because Mr Thomas informs me: "I regret that we are not able to provide a link for you. It is not appropriate for the County Council website to provide links to websites which contain controversial views and opinions".
And, it seems, in the interests of "equitable treatment" Wildman's electronic equivalent of Mogadon has also got to go.

My apologies to the residents of Burton who will have to seek some other way of finding out the times of chapel services and Burton Community council meetings.

PS. I notice that the poor old Webmaster seems to have been instructed to remove this facility altogether because the words "web link (none at present)" have been removed from all sixty councillors' details.
I'm not sure how that can be reconciled with the three hundred quid all councillors receive to help them pay for computers and internet access.

Impure propaganda

The Leader of the Independent party, Cllr John Davies, has devised a little speech to put the opposition in their place when they threaten to get above themselves.
It involves reminding them of the Independents' resounding success at the recent election, when, against all predictions, they emerged with their massive majority intact.
At full Council a few weeks ago he told members "the ballot box has spoken" and the Independents were in power for the next four years.
I will not bore you with the details of what happened at the last election - for those who are interested, a full report can be found at Night of the long faces - but I would just point out that among the eight Independents who lost their seats were the Leader, three Cabinet members and the Chairman-elect.
At that meeting Cllr Davies said that some Independent Political Groups in Wales had formed themselves into registered political parties, but Pembrokeshire's finest had steered clear of that path.
He seemed to be suggesting that there was something honorable about the actions of the Pembrokeshire Independent Group.
In fact the very opposite is true.
At least if the Independents came out of the closet and told the truth about themselves the electorate would know exactly what they were voting for.
After all, we insist on accurate labeling of food, so why not politicians.
And another thing: if they were a proper political party they wouldn't be able to run multiple candidates in the same ward, which how they came to make good the losses referred to above.
And it would also discourage candidates such a Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse from concealing their true colours by leaving the description section on the ballot paper blank.