29 April 2003


Letters galore

Old Grumpy notices that Cllr Brian Howells of Fishguard has been appointed to the Board of Directors of Milford Haven Port Authority.
This will bring in £4,100 to go with the £22,500 a year he already trousers for being a member of the County Council Cabinet.
As the justification for these vast Special Responsibility allowances was that Cabinet membership was a full time job, Old Grumpy wonders how Cllr Howells will find the time to attend MHPA Board meetings.
Cllr Howells has also been in the news recently over his part in the affair of the Fishguard letters. This all flows from a controversial plan to construct a new school access road off Vergam Terrace - the main road between Fishguard and Goodwick.
Our starting point is a meeting of Fishguard and Goodwick Town Council on 18 March this year when the new road plan was on the agenda.
According to the County Echo, the Mayor told the meeting that "about 15" letters had been received supporting the scheme. On closer inspection it turned out that four of these letters were in fact covering letters of the type: "Please find enclosed a copy of my letter in support etc, etc."
That reduced the number of favourable letters to 11.
Down to ten, when at least one of the remaining letters; written, apparently, by Mr Russell Parry Jones in his capacity as vice chairman of the governors of Fishguard Junior School, turned out to be the work of County Council Cabinet member Cllr Brian Howells.
Cllr Howells' explanation to a meeting of the Governors as to how this letter arrived in the public domain is that "This was a draft of a letter on plain paper", which he intended to discuss with Mr Parry Jones before getting him to sign it.
"I had intended to discuss and consider the contents with Russell and other members of the governing body at a meeting to be held on the afternoon of 18 February before drawing up the agreed version on School headed notepaper and asking Russell to sign it. However Russell was not present at the meeting as his father had died the previous day and I threw the letter away.
"I had kept a copy of the letter with my planning papers and had put a mark where the signature should be to indicate it was a copy. When my attention was drawn to the matter by Russell late on the afternoon of 28 February I looked in my planning application papers and found that the copy of the letter was not there.
"I have to assume that I inadvertently handed in the copy letter with other papers at the Town Council meeting on the evening of 18 February."
There are number of errors and inconsistencies in this account of events.
Firstly, the letter handed in to Fishguard Town Hall was on headed school notepaper and not on plain paper as claimed by Cllr Howells.
Secondly, it is difficult to understand why Cllr Howells should feel the need to compose a letter on behalf of Mr Parry Jones who, as a solicitor with the County Council, is presumably quite capable of writing his own letters.
Thirdly, the absence of Mr Parry Jones from the governors' meeting on the 18 February 2003 did not prevent discussion of the letter by the other members present. Had they agreed the text then Cllr Howells could have signed it - after all he is the Chairman of the governors. Indeed, it is difficult to understand why he was so keen for the vice-chairman to sign the letter rather than himself as chairman.
Fourthly, why was discussion of this letter delayed until the afternoon of the Town Council meeting when, according to Cllr Howells' letter of explanation, the decision to support the plans for the new access had been agreed by the governors seven months earlier on 17 July 2002.
And, finally, there is the question of the propriety of a Cabinet member persuading, pressurising even, a County Council employee to sign a letter, which clearly backs the authority's official position on the issue.
It would seem that the emergence of this letter caused something of a stir and an extra-ordinary meeting of the governors was called for 4 March at which the only item on the agenda was the disputed letter.
The matter was clearly taken seriously by County Hall because Director of Education, Gerson Davies, no doubt keen to appraise the situation by apprising himself of the facts, was in attendance as Clerk.
In a letter to the objectors, dated 14 March 2003, the Director of Education says: "You will already have received a letter of explanation from Cllr Brian Howells who gave this explanation in person to the Governors at their recent meeting. This explanation was accepted by the Governors."
However, the minutes of the Governors' meeting tell a different story.
They record that: "An apology was presented by Cllr Howells and accepted by the Governors."
As for his "explanation", the minutes record: "RESOLVED: to receive the Chairman's explanation."
And, as students of the arcane world of committee politics will know, to receive a document or report is merely an acknowledgement that you have seen it and does not signify agreement with the contents.
Then there is another letter from Mr Charles Howells, brother of the Cabinet member, which bears a striking resemblance in typeface and layout and the almost identical squiggle in the space left for the signature, to the letter not written by My Parry Jones.
Once I have mastered the intricacies of the scanner, I will post these two letters on the website


Doctor's dilemma

I read in my Daily Telegraph that six out of ten GPs surveyed were in favour of a £36 charge for home visits.
According to the report: "The finding reflects frustration among many doctors that their workload is being unnecessarily increased by over-demanding patients."
However, the BMA disputes the findings, claiming that most doctors still believed that the NHS should be free at the point of service.
And that, in a nutshell, is the dilemma that confronts all governments wrestling with the healthcare system.
On the one hand, you have the iron laws of economics, which hold that if you make something free you create unlimited demand and, on the other, the moral imperative that people shouldn't be denied healthcare because they are too poor to pay for it.
The matter is further complicated by the tendency of politicians to make wild promises they know they can't deliver in order to get elected and the widespread belief that the NHS is divorced from the grubby business of economics which leads people to make statements like "money shouldn't be a consideration when people's lives/health are at stake".
If only that were true and it never rained on Sundays!


Absolute rule

The County Council's website (www.Pembrokeshire.gov.uk) has a link to "Cabinet and other meetings". Unfortunately, a year into the new Cabinet set-up, the other meetings have yet to put in an appearance.
The other morning, when I heard Gen Jay Garner tell the Today programme that his aim in Iraq was to establish "an open and honest government", it occurred to me that I might write to him and invite him to call in at Withybush Airfield on the way home and restore Pembrokeshire to the Rule of Law.
For instance, the Cabinet reports for the meeting of 7 April 2003 contain a four-page list of contracts let during the past year.
This triggered something in my mind and I headed down the shed to consult my copy of the Council's constitution.
Now, as Lib Dem member Bill Philpin said recently, constitutions are "as dry as dust" but that doesn't alter the fact that what sets democracies apart from tyrannies is that the conduct of their rulers is circumscribed by constitutional rules.
What the County Council's constitution says is: "All contracts let, in accordance with these Standing Orders, shall be reported by the Director/Head of Central Unit concerned to the next meeting of the Cabinet " [Thereby putting them in the public domain]or as may otherwise be determined by the Council.
It transpires that between May 2002 and December 2002 these rules of disclosure were simply ignored.
Then late in 2002 somebody decided to regularise the situation and at its meeting on 5 December 2002 the Corporate Governance Committee (CGC) resolved that, in the interests of administrative efficiency, the award of these contracts would be reported twice yearly; in April and October, instead of monthly.
The difficulty is that the constitution gives the Council, not the CGC, the power to change the rules.
I understand that the role of the CGC is on the agenda for an extra-ordinary meeting of the Council to be held on May 8.
It is to be hoped that the opposition drive home the point that it is unacceptable for the Leader and his chums, who make up two thirds of the CGC, to set the limits on their own power.

Man of letters

For reasons that will become clearer over time, Old Grumpy has been conducting a study into the degree of creativity that people manage to import into their CVs.
Few people are foolish enough to tell outright lies, but that doesn't preclude what appears in the CV being less than the absolute truth.
For instance how about that respected intellectual Cllr Peter Stock who could claim in all honesty to be both a Member of the Court of Governors of Swansea University and a member of the Welsh Institute of Foreign Affairs.
Pretty impressive!
But, before Women's Institutes, Probus or the Soroptimists reach for the phone to invite Cllr Stock to give a talk on Higher Education, or the solution to the Middle East problem, I should warn them that Cllr Stock is the County Council representative on these august bodies and that his appointment owes more to Independent Group cronyism than educational achievement or knowledge of foreign policy.

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