Nothing to declare

A feature of the debates on the reorganisation of secondary education in north west Pembrokeshire has been the confusion over members’ declarations of interests.

At times, members standing up and reeling off the details of their relatives employed in the school system seems to have taken longer than the debate itself.

Of course, it is important for the preservation of confidence in the democratic system that elected members are seen to be acting in the public interest rather than in the interests of themselves or their family and friends.

However, it is also important that members are able to represent the views of the people who elected them.

Striking a balance between these two aims can be tricky, as Labour councillor Tom Tudor has found.

Cllr Tudor is a parent governor at one of the schools under review and according to the Code of Conduct this gives him a prejudicial interest which requires him to withdraw from meetings when matters affecting that school are discussed.

So, Cllr Tudor applied to the council’s standards committee for a dispensation and was granted the right to speak but not vote on the issue.

Come the meeting last April there was a recorded vote and when his name was called out, despite being warned by the monitoring officer that he was breaching the Code, Cllr Tudor took the not unreasonable view that his duty to his constituents overrode his duty to the Code and voted against the proposition.

While he had clearly overstepped the mark, this was not a breach to stand alongside a member taking part in a decision on his wife’s planning permission, or his best friend’s job application.

However, he was duly reported to the Ombudsman who found that, while there had been a breach of the Code, this was of such a minor nature that no further action was required.

And there the matter might have rested had not the Ombudsman decided to “advise” Cllr Tudor that he ought to apologise to the standards committee for disregarding the terms of the dispensation.

The Ombudsman’s letter forms part of the report to next week’s meeting of the standards committee and it reveals that the two members who made the original complaint were Cllrs Myles Pepper and Jamie Adams.

Cllr Pepper is a fine one to be taking exception to this minor breach of the Code because it is not so long ago that the Ombudsman hauled him over the coals for the rather more serious matter of failing to make known his own prejudicial interest to the highways department when making representations on behalf of his constituents regarding changes to traffic regulations in the street where he lived.

Having concurred with the Ombudsman’s finding that Cllr Pepper had committed multiple breaches of the Code, the committee decided that a reprimand and further training was sufficient punishment and allowed him to reclaim his legal costs from the council.

As for the Leader, it is difficult to know where to start.

Perhaps the dodgy planning permission for a 2,500 sq ft agricultural worker’s cottage would be as good as any.

Then there is the matter of his claim – shortly after the last election – for four years’ worth of travelling expenses when the council’s rules clearly state that claims should be submitted within three months.

Though the rules were not so clear as to prevent the council paying up and then concocting some justification based on the director of finance’s discretion.

And, he seems to have had no qualms about keeping Cllr Rob Lewis in his Cabinet after he received a two-week suspension from the standards committee for industrial-scale unlawful use of the council’s computer system during the 2008 and 2012 elections.

If that all seems a bit technical, how about the lie he told about what he and his co-conspirator Cllr David Pugh had witnessed during their expedition into the attic at Coronation School, Pembroke Dock?

In addition, there is some doubt about the veracity of the statements he made about the Mik Smith case at the council meeting in July 2014 in answer to questions from Cllr Paul Miller and myself.

In July 2014, Smith, a former PCC youth worker, was sentenced to six years in prison for sexual abuse of a child and following on from that it came to light that a whistleblower who had complained about Smith’s behaviour with children in 2005 had been sacked by the council.

I have been pursuing this issue for some time, not least because of the injustice done to the whistleblower, and to his credit the new chief executive Ian Westley has commissioned a report from an independent social worker.

Unfortunately, someone in the legal department has decided this report is confidential on the grounds that it contains “sensitive personal information” under the Data Protection Act.

Having read the Act, I don’t accept this interpretation and I am awaiting developments.

What you will not be surprised to learn is that, according to this latest report, what we were told about this previously is by no means the full story.

And, should Cllr Tudor take the Ombundsman’s advice to do penance before the standards committee, it might interest him to know that one of the members to whom he is apologising also has form with the Ombudsman.

That would be Cllr Stan “Three down” Hudson who came to the attention of the watchdog back in the days of Preseli District Council when it was found that he and several other Milford Haven members had failed to declare an interest in a planning application by one of their masonic chums.

Cllr Hudson’s case was even worse than the rest because for several years it had been the practice of the applicant to provide him with free winter storage for his touring caravan.

That was actually before the days of the present Code of Conduct, but the Ombudsman found that the involvement of these members in the decision-making process amounted to maladministration on the grounds of bias.

Not unlike the predetermination cases that we have heard so much about recently.