April 11 2006

Tories come out

The county's small group of political twitchers have been in a state of excitement this week following the appearance of an official Conservative candidate in the Maenclochog bye-election..
This bird (Torianus Veritas); common in most other parts of the UK, usually moults its dark blue plumage when in Pembrokeshire in favour of the browny-grey colouring of the Torianus Clandestina (aka Independentia Falsissimus).
At local election time its strident call : noplaceforpartypolitics (easily confused with that of a male turkey) can frequently be heard around the county, but once the votes are safely in the bag the birds flock together and roost under the umbrella of the Independent Political Group (IPG) (see Party animals).
Experienced ornithologists believe this behaviour pattern has evolved to enable members to satisfy the species' appetite for its preferred diet of Special Responsibility and sundry other allowances - roughly £250,000-worth at the last count.
In addition to this rare Tory, the Maenclochog bye-election has attracted six other candidates: 1 Plaid Cymru, 1 Socialist Labour, 2 Independents and 2 blanks (full details can be found on the county council's website).
During the local government elections in 2004, Old Grumpy drew attention to the 13 existing members of the IPG whose ballot papers were silent on the matter of party affiliation (see Running on empty).
However, all those who managed to get back in signed up for the IPG at the first opportunity.
So it would be interesting to know whether these four candidates are independent (not belonging to or supported by a political party) or independent (potential member of the IPG).
After all, if we insist on accurate labelling of our food, why not politicians?

But not right out

Old Grumpy hears that if the local Tory hierarchy has its way there could be sizeable flocks of the blue-feathered Torianus Veritas come the local elections in 2008.
Whether this is due to feelings of remorse at sneaking into power by the shabby trick of masquerading as independents, or a new-found confidence following the election to Parliament of Steve Crabb, or Dave's change agenda, I cannot be sure.
However, I hear there is stiff resistance from some of the old guard who realise that, even if they managed to hang on to their seats, as a member of a minority group their prospects of getting a juicy special responsibility allowance would be slender indeed.
If I were a betting man, I would venture one of my better shirts that the thirst for power will beat principle by several lengths.

Secret crimes

The news that 37 people had been cautioned for rape last year, rather than prosecuted, has caused quite a stir and rightly so.
It seems to me that handing out cautions is one of the murkier areas of our criminal justice system.
What must be remembered is that before a caution can be administered there has to be an admission of guilt.
Naturally, the thought that 37 self-confessed rapists have walked away with nothing more than a ticking off, has caused understandable outrage.
My own interest in this matter flows from a Freedom of Information request I made to the police for details of cautions handed down at Haverfordwest for a particular month a couple of years ago.
The police have sent me a list of the 25 cautions for the period (15 drug-related, 3 theft, 2 criminal damage, 2 assault and one each of burglary, bomb hoax and false accounting) though they are refusing to disclose the names of the offenders because to do so would be in breach of the Data Protection Act.
Clearly, the police have a point because the fact that someone has been cautioned is sensitive personal information.
However, it seems to me that the wider public interest would be served if the names were revealed.
After all, if these people had been prosecuted, their names would be in the public domain, so why should a caution be any different.
And, when someone applies for a position of trust, how is a prospective employer to know that they haven't been cautioned for theft.
There is also a serious danger that the integrity of the justice system will be undermined if the promise of anonymity persuades the innocent to admit to crimes they didn't commit rather than face prosecution, with all the attendant publicity [no smoke without fire, and all that] and the outside chance that they might be wrongly convicted.


Open secret

It would appear that Pembrokeshire County Council is leaking worse than the Titanic with verbatim quotations in the Mercury from a supposedly "secret" Ombundman's report into Cllr Brian Hall's alleged threats against a BBC journalist the latest in a series of recent revelations.
I have no idea who is responsible for these leaks but, in my best lawyers' Latin, non est factum.
However, even if I was the culprit, I would be feeling fairly confident of seeing off any complaint because, before someone can be found to have breached the Code, the information disclosed must come within one of the exemptions set out in the Act.
It is simply not enough for the committee to declare the information exempt.
As I explained last week, it is difficult to see any connection between the grounds for excluding the public and the matter in hand (see Hall of fame).
Though that didn't prevent the committee from kicking out the solitary member of the public, who happened to be the man from the Mercury.
Indeed, one of the independent (not connected to the council) members, Mr Clive Sheridan, wanted to go even further and have the members excluded from the public gallery because "we can't guarantee it will not leak out to the press."
At least he was right about that because it was splashed over the front page of next day's Mercury.
But it is hardly reassuring to find that a member of the standards committee thinks he has the power to deny even elected members their rights.
After the press had headed for the exit the committee had to decide whether Cllr Hall had a case to answer.
That didn't take long after the chairman Susan Smith told the committee: "It is difficult for us, when the Ombudsman has reported in these terms, to find no case to answer."
There will now be a full hearing at some future, as yet unspecified, date.

Divided loyalties

Last year I reported on my failed attempt to become a county council representative on Milford Haven Port Authority's board of directors (see Foregone conclusion and Almighty).
Part of the blurb that accompanied the application form informed potential board members of the ground rules, including:

An acceptance that as a Member [of the MHPA board] they will be working in the best interests of the Authority [MHPA] and not in any other capacity e.g. on behalf of a nominating or representative body, or as a defender of functional or sectional interests.

Now, as you might imagine, this gave me a problem.
As I explained to the interviewing panel, the only reason I was sitting there was because the people of Hakin had elected me as their representative.
How was I supposed to react if MHPA was proposing to do something that was indisputably for the benefit of MHPA but, also indisputably, to the disbenefit of my constituents?
Surely, I argued, my first loyalty must be to the people who elected me.
After the discussion had gone too and fro for some time, without any of the panel providing a satisfactory way around this dilemma, one of them weakly suggested: "It's never been a problem in the past."
As someone has recently suggested to me, the difficulty may go much wider than a mere conflict between the interests of a member's constituents and the MHPA.
As we have seen with the ongoing saga of the Mine Depot, MHPA and the county council have extensive dealings with each other and there must be occasions when their interests diverge.
What happens, then, if a councillor/board member is present at a meeting of the MHPA board when a strategy is being devised to squeeze better terms out of the authority?
Is it his duty to get the best deal for the people who elected him, or the MHPA?
I will return to this subject in due course.

Propaganda on the rates

You will all have now received your council tax bills together with a pamphlet explaining where your money goes.
Be warned, this is a highly misleading document.
On pages two and three you will find a series of boxes with headings such as: "Education services £95.5 million - Your Council tax is spent on . . ." followed by a list of desirable activities in which the council engages.
Closer examination reveals that the £95.5 million is the gross spending on education. If you subtract income of £18 million that comes down to £77.5 million nett. If you then look at the projected accounts on page five you will find that 83% of this expenditure is financed by central government in the form of the Revenue Support Grant and non-domestic rates, leaving just over £13 million to be paid for by council tax.
All the figures on pages two and three are similarly flawed but the claim with regard to the £40.1 million spent on "Housing services" takes the biscuit.
What the figures on page five show is that all but £1.5 million of this sum is paid for by the rents collected from council house tenants (£15.5 million) and other income such as direct government grants for home improvement schemes (£23.2 million).
The 17% of the £1.5 million financed from council tax comes to £255,000 - rather a far cry from £40.1 million.
Being bombarded with propaganda is bad enough at any time, but, when it's paid for through your taxes, it becomes absolutely intolerable.

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