25 February 2002


Two rights...

An alert reader has e-mailed me to point out a discrepancy between Old Grumpy's report on the increases in councillors' allowances and that in the Western Telegraph.
My correspondent draws attention to last week's Telegraph, which states that the additional cost "next year" will be £371,000 while Old Grumpy quoted a figure of £405,000 for the annual cost.
"So which is right?" she demands to know.
Well, both.
The figure quoted in the Telegraph is for the financial year 2002/03 but, as the increases don't come in to effect until 1 May 2002, they will only be paid for 11 months in that year, while the £405,000 used in my column is the cost for a full year.
Whichever way you look at it, the extra money trousered by our elected representatives is roughly equivalent to the budget of a 170-pupil primary school, which must say something about the scale of priorities of our democratically elected representatives.


No right to know

The County Council's new constitution, agreed by last week's Policy and Resources Committee, and due to be rubber stamped by Thursday's full Council, severely curtails the rights of the 50 ordinary (non-Cabinet) members to access "exempt information".
Under the present system all members get to see any "exempt information" that is the subject of discussion in committee including information on employees, legal advice, adoption and fostering, negotiation of contracts and other matters that the Council may resolve to discuss in private.
Henceforth, only the 10 Cabinet members will have an automatic right to see this information.
The other 50 members will only have access to such information if it is "relevant to an action or decision that is being reviewed or scrutinised [by a Scrutiny Committee] and (my emphasis) provided the Director of Support Services is satisfied that the information should be disclosed.
So, if the Director says no, that is it and all about it.
Furthermore, "If exempt information is provided to an Overview and Scrutiny Committee, the Committee will be bound to conduct any discussion in private and not make the information public".
This removes the previous discretion of members to discuss exempt information in open session if a majority thought it was in the public interest to do so.
And our right to know what is going on with respect to senior officers' pay will also disappear because such matters will be decided by a six-person Senior Staff Committee (four Independents - two others) which will always meet behind closed doors.
During the debate on the constitution at last week's P and R committee, Labour Leader, Cllr Joyce Watson, said that the new arrangements, brought in by her Labour colleagues in the Welsh Assembly, were designed to encourage open, accountable, democratic local government.
Dream on, Joyce! Open government is definitely not part of the Blair project.


Sharing the spoils

Old Grumpy hears that Michael Williams (Plaid Cymru) has been nominated to challenge Maurice Hughes for the Leadership of the County Council.
Cllr Williams faces some challenging electoral arithmetic, because Cllr Hughes' Independent Political (sic) Group controls 41 of the Council's 60 seats.
However, as the election will be by secret ballot, it will be interesting to see how many, if any, of the Independents signal their deep misgivings about the increasingly Stalinist antics of some of the group's leading lights by registering a protest vote.
A mole tells me that the matter may be further complicated by a faction within the Independent Group who are becoming disillusioned with the Hughes leadership.
I should hasten to point out that this is nothing whatsoever to do with the way Cllr Hughes does the job, but is a result of his own particular arithmetical problem: how to share out the 10 £22,500 a-year Cabinet seats between 41 members without offending too many people.
My mole tells me that this faction, anticipating that they would be excluded from the centre of power when the Leader does eventually choose his Cabinet, were planning a palace coup by putting up a prominent figure to run against Cllr Hughes at the secret group meeting where the Independents' nominee for Leader will be chosen.
However, the Mauists got wind of the plot and the rebels were bought off with promises of favourable treatment when the time comes to share out the goodies.
But this is a problem that won't go away and Old Grumpy predicts big trouble once it dawns on the non-Cabinet members that these new arrangements have cast them into political eunuchdom.

Room for improvement

Last week I sent a copy of a letter written by County Council Chief Executive Bryn Parry-Jones to the Commission on Local Government Electoral Arrangements in Wales (COLOGEA).
There has been some adverse comment in the local press because Mr Parry-Jones sent the letter without consulting the members, but this a row about form rather than substance because even if the members had been called together to discuss the matter they would almost certainly have gone along with whatever the Chief Executive had decided.
So, instead of carping criticism, Mr Parry-Jones should be praised for saving the taxpayer a small fortune in travelling expenses.
Indeed, judging by the way the Independent Group rubber stamp whatever Mr Parry-Jones and the officers put in front of them there may be substantial savings to be made by extending this practice to Council meetings.
But it was what Mr Parry-Jones had to say on the substantive issues that fascinated Old Grumpy.
One of the proposals on the table is that there should be elections for a quarter of the seats every year.
This is an attempt to answer free marketeers like Old Grumpy who suggest that Tesco is more responsive to the wishes of its customers than is the County Council because, while you can change your grocer any time you like, you only get the opportunity to change your Councillor every four years.
Mr Parry-Jones gives that idea very short shrift indeed.
"The agenda for local government is now focussed firmly on improvement and this often requires courageous decisions by members which will not be universally and immediately popular (e.g. the reorganisation/rationalisation of schools)." He writes.
"Short term or annual elections by proportions or otherwise will create a climate of constant electoral activity and remove any real capacity for improvement and change."
In other words, Mr Parry-Jones has an agenda for "improvement" and he doesn't want our tame Councillors to be discouraged from voting for things that the electorate doesn't regard as improvements by the threat of electoral oblivion.
If elections stand in the way of "improvement", then, I suppose, the logical conclusion is that we should do away with them altogether.
And there is another difficulty: as the Independent Political (sic) Group did not contest the last election on a manifesto, it has no democratic mandate to impose these improvements on an unwilling public.
And Old Grumpy wonders if our elected representatives would have been "courageous" enough to vote for the not "universally and immediately popular" massive "improvement" in their allowances if there were elections next month?

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