April 5 2012


Informed consent?

County Council elections are to be held on 3 May.
Elections are momentous events in a democracy because on election day the politicians hand back power to the people; the ultimate sovereign body, and the people decide who they will entrust with power for the next four or five years.
This is often characterised as government with the consent of the people, which is then translated to government by the will of the people.
Under first-past-the post, this last claim is rarely valid outside a two party system because the winning party doesn't usually have a majority of the votes.
Indeed, Tony Blair had huge majorities on the back of 33% of the vote (22% of the total electorate) and there are presently members of the county council who had the support of less than a third of the electorate i.e. twice the number of people who voted for them would have preferred someone else.
However, we can be said to consent to this less-than-perfect electoral system because the two thirds of the electorate who end up on the losing side don't take to burning cars in the street, and when, last year, we were given the opportunity to vote for a more proportional system we rejected it by a large majority.
Clearly, consenting to be ruled by someone else is a serious business and people have the right to know how the candidates competing for their votes intend to exercise that power.
That brings us to a concept which is well embedded in the NHS; informed consent.
While it used to be the case that turning up at the hospital for your operation was considered to amount to implied consent, the present system involves the provision of information about the various possible outcomes of the proceedure - positive and negative - and the patient signing a form to indicate that they have read and understood the information and that they consent to the operation.
It seems to me that it is just as important that people are told exactly what is to be done in their name by candidates at an election.
After all, it cannot be the case that you can consent to something without knowing what it is.
But that is precisely the situation we have with the Independent Political Group (IPG) on Pembrokeshire County Council.

This is formed after the election by members who have neglected to tell the voters of their membership/ intention to join a political group which hasn't stood on a manifesto informing the electorate what they intend to do if and when they acquire power.
As I've said many times before, all my objections to the IPG would evaporate if its members made clear to the voters that they were/intended to become members and stood on a manifesto setting out their programme for government.
The problem for the IPG is that while Pembrokeshire people have a preference for independent members the vast majority are smart enough to work out that being at the same time independent and a member of a political group is a contradiction in terms.
That is why you will see no mention of the IPG, or its Leader (see below) in their election materials.

Take me to your Leader

While May 3's election will be important, it is arguable that, if past events are anything to go by, an even more important election will take place on about May7- 8 in which the voters will have no say.
That will be the secret meeting of those members who have opted to join the Independent Political Group.
At this meeting these members will sign the form indicating that they wish to join the political group (see Party animals) and once that formality is out of the way they will elect their Leader who will, provided they still hold a majority of seats on the council, become Leader of the council.
Now, if Leader was just a courtesy title this might not matter much, but such are the Leader's powers under the council's constitution that he is virtually a dictator.
First the Leader, acting alone, appoints the Cabinet.
Second, though the Chairman of scrutiny committees are nominally elected by full council, nobody doubts that the leader has a big say in who will get these key posts.
Indeed, until I objected, normal practice was for the Leader to stand up at the AGM and read out a list of those he had decided should chair the committees that are supposed to scrutinize the activities of him and his Cabinet.(No contest).
Third, the Leader has the power under the constitution to make all council appointments to outside bodies. These include Police Authority (2) Fire Authority (2) National Park (8) - all paid - and dozens of other unpaid but self-importance boosting posts.
In addition to these powers of appointment, the Leader does most of the talking at council meetings on behalf of his followers.
Indeed there a quite a few members of the IPG who have never spoken in a council meeting where I was present.
The question is whether the voters have ever consented to their Independent councillors throwing in their lot with a political group which doesn't feature in their election addresses, and subcontracting their judgement, and the power you have invested in them, to a Leader whose identity is not revealed.
Though I should say it is common knowledge in the members' tea room that, should the IPG have a majority after the election, the Leader will be Cllr Jamie Adams.
I would be pleased to hear from anyone who spots any mention of either the IPG or the Leader-elect on an election leaflet.
I am not anticipating an overflowing inbox.

In your name?

The other great weakness of democracy as practiced in Pembrokeshire is that, apart from council press releases (propaganda?), there is an almost total absence of coverage in the local press.
Two weeks ago there was a meeting of full council during which there was a debate on the sale of Haverfordwest Castle and questions on the rundown of services at Withybush Hospital.
Not one word of any of this made its way into the local press.
There are rare occasions when controversial topics are reported which reveal how elected representatives exercise power on the voters' behalf.
One such is the report I found in the Western Telegraph's archive dated 20 July 2006 under the headline: "Councillors vote for no say on pay".
My own comments are in square brackets.
OVER half [exactly two thirds on my reckoning] of our 60 county councillors have voted to give themselves no say at all in how much the chief executive is paid.
At last week's council meeting, members voted 36 to 18 to keep decisions on how much top officers are paid in the hands of a six-strong senior staff committee
[on which the Leader and three of his Cabinet have a 4-2 majority].
The alternative was to have that committee make a recommendation to full council, so all 60 members could have a say in the decision.
Leading the bid to give all members a say in such decisions was Cllr John Cole. He said that the firm of consultants brought in to advise the committee on the chef exec's pay had been told to find evidence to support the salary figure decided by the leader and a senior officer.
"The consultants' suggestion was not totally independent. The committee was faced with a fait accompli decided by two people" he said.
Cllr Mike Stoddart said the argument for giving a committee plenary powers was that it streamlined decision-making, "but the most streamlined decision-making of all is to be found in dictatorships
"There is no urgency with these decisions" he said. "The pay awards are invariably backdated and I'm sure none of the senior officers are so strapped for cash they need an immediate pay rise.
Cllr Joyce Watson, who was on the senior staff committee when it decided the chief exec's most recent pay rise, said the committee was not given enough information, and when they asked for it, they were scowled at and considered troublemakers.
Council leader John Davies denied that the consultants had been told to find evidence to support an already-agreed figure, and said they had been brought in because of criticism that it was unfair to expect the head of personnel to recommend a pay rise for his line manager.
Cllr Davies said there was no need to change the way senior officers' pay was decided, because most other authorities in Wales did it the same way.
"Yes, we need to re-instill democracy but we need to apply democracy with modern governance" he said.
He added that he was not in the process of playing "political ping pong" with the salaries of individuals.
Cllr Mike Evans, who also sits on the committee, stressed the need for confidentiality in pay matters, and pointed out the committee was politically balanced four Independents, two opposition members.
The vote was split almost exactly along party lines, with the Independent Group holding firm, save for Henry Jones who abstained.
YES! Give me no say in how much the chief exec is paid' said: Cllrs Jamie Adams, David Bryan, Jim Codd, Clive Collins, Lyn Davies, Mark Edwards, Robin Evans, Wyn Evans, John George, Huw George, John Griffiths, Brian Hall, Rosemary Hayes, Bill Hitchings, Islwyn Howells, Anne Hughes, Sian James, Rob Lewis, Rosie Lilwall, Pearl Llewellyn, Alwyn Luke, Elwyn Morse, John Murphy, David Neale, Leslie Raymond, David Rees, Tom Richards, Bill Roberts, David Simpson, Peter Stock, Stephen Watkins, Arwyn Williams.
John Davies, David Wildman, Mike Evans and John Allen-Mirehouse also voted to stop full council deciding senior officers' pay - but they sit on the senior staff committee.

I put down exactly the same notice of motion last year and when it came before full council in December 2011 it was voted down 36-21 by the IPG block vote.
What is interesting is that four members of the IPG (a sizeable revolt in the context of these things) including Cllr Mike Evans (see above) voted in favour of the motion.
Unfortunately this didn't put much of a dent in the IPG majority because two of the four Tories present: Cllrs Stan Hudson and Aden Brinn voted with the ruling group.
This despite the fact that, only a couple of weeks earlier, the Tory minister for local government, Eric Pickles, had stated that party policy was to allow ordinary members more say in the setting of top officers' pay.

Dangerous games

I get a lot of emails from opponents of LNG about the possibility of an explosion if ever there is a leak of gas from one of the two storage facilities on the shores of the Haven.
Having been in the Mercury office on the Sunday that a gas explosion at Texaco blew out the shop windows in Milford's Charles Street, this is something I take seriously.
Explosions are one of about ten things that I claim to know much about, having developed a fascination for the subject when studying 'A' level chemistry.
I already had some knowledge from my experiments with Calcium Carbide (CaC2) a substance which some older readers will remember being used in bicycle lamps before batteries became freely available.
When mixed with water it gives off acetylene which form an explosive mixture with air.
Our method was to take a small piece of Carbide, spit on it and then place an upside down empty syrup tin on top.
After a few seconds to allow for the generation of acetylene a match is applied and the syrup tin is blasted high into the air.
Apparently this is a popular past time in Holland where they use milk churns and footballs in what are known as Carbide festivals to see in the New Year..
Type carbidschieten into google, if you don't believe me.
However I became seriously interested in explosives when I read in my chemistry text book that the high explosive nitrocellulose could be produced by simply immersing a piece of cotton cloth (cellulose) in concentrated nitric acid (nitro).
Fortunately, before I could devise a way of liberating some nitric acid from the chemistry lab, I did some further reading on the subject.
What I found was that the early pioneers in explosion technology divided into two distinct groups.
There were those like DuPont in America and Nobel in Sweden who went on to make vast fortunes, and those who blew themselves up.
The problem was that even the slightest impurity could trigger a spontaneous reaction as the German chemist Christian Schonbein found out in 1845 when he accidentally discovered nitrocellulose or guncotton after he spilled nitric acid on a cotton apron and the apron disappeared in a puff of smoke.
Being something of a coward, I restricted my further studies to the purely theoretical.

Published and promoted by Mike Stoddart Court Farm Liddeston Milford Haven SA73 3QA. Candidate Hakin Milford Ward, Pembs County Council elections 3 May 2012.

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