8 April 2003




This week sees the imposition of an extra penny in the pound on National Insurance contributions from both employers and employees in order to raise £8 billion a year for investment in the NHS.
As the NHS is itself a major employer, a sizeable proportion of this extra money will go to pay, um, er, increased National Insurance charges - a classic case of the Government giving with one hand and taking away with the other.
And this applies to all public sector bodies.
According to a recently published budget report, the cost to Pembrokeshire County Council will be £800,000 a year.
The Welsh Assembly is reimbursing this sum.
Guess from whose pockets the Assembly gets it money.


Deja vu again

Way back in 1968 I decided to set up in business on my own as a building and civil engineering company.
The first contract I ever won was for the construction of a sewer, linking the Coppet Hall area of Saunderfoot to the sewage works, which was, as I recall, somewhere up Valley Road.
Part of the works involved laying a rising main through the tunnel.
The resident engineer for Narberth RDC at the time was a Mr Baker who had spent most of his life in the Colonial Service constructing sewage systems in darkest Africa and other outposts of the Empire.
"Its sh-- to most people but its my bread and butter," he was fond of saying.
Unfortunately, the Wilson government of the time ran in to one of those periodic balance of payments/national debt inspired Sterling crises that were a feature of life in the 60s and 70s and the axe was taken to public spending with the result that the sewage scheme was scrapped less than two weeks before we were due to start work.
I mention this because, after more than 10 years of steady growth, falling unemployment and economic stability, I have an uneasy feeling that Gordon Brown has overreached himself with his promises of massive increases in public spending.
Fortunately, the advent of free-floating exchange rates makes a Sterling crisis unlikely but there are still plenty of elephant traps along the economic way as the Japanese and Germans will testify.


Birds in paradise.

I have been conducting a survey of the bird life in my garden.
I count four pairs of sparrows nesting in the eaves and two families of jackdaws in the chimneys.
A dove has set up shop in the tree outside the back door and a couple of wood pigeons are nesting just across the lane.
This morning, while sitting in the greenhouse with a cup of tea and an Embassy filter, I noticed a thrush disappearing into the hedge with a mouthful of grass.
And that is on top of the two pairs of blackbirds; one already incubating its eggs in a nest in the racking behind the shed, where I store plant pots and the like, and the other in the hedge at the other end of the ranch.
These are also robins and wrens about the place but I haven't yet been able to locate their nests.
While the female blackbirds are busy building nests and hatching eggs, the two males are locked in a constant struggle to defend their territories from each other, with the roof of my shed as their favoured battleground.
"Typical men", Old Grumpette harrumphed, when I pointed out this difference in male/female behaviour.

Con tract

Last week I received another letter from the County Council's Monitoring Officer, Huw James, who still insists that the County Council has a "contractually enforceable" agreement with Euro-Ryall Ltd - the company set up Cllr Brian Hall and Dr Michael Ryan in December 2000 - that it will not trade in Pembrokeshire.
Our discussion has centred on a press release issued by the Leader, Cllr Maurice Hughes, on November 6 last year in which he stated that, prior to the setting up of Euro-Ryall Ltd, "The principals [Hall and Ryan] approached officers of the council. They gave firm undertakings that the company would not trade in Pembrokeshire …"
I have not been able to find out which "officers" were "approached", or when.
However, after much tooing and froing, Mr James produced a letter, bearing the date 3 September 2000, from ORA International Ltd to Mr David Thomas, the Council's Head of Marketing and Communications, which, he claimed, constituted a "contractually enforceable" agreement between Dr Ryan and the Council.
In this letter, signed by Dr Ryan, as Managing Director, ORA (as we will call it) Mr Thomas was informed that ORA's Board of Directors had decided to set up a company in the UK and that he [Dr Ryan] would be ORA's representative on the board of directors.
The letter also said that, to avoid any conflict of interest, the new company would not trade in Pembrokeshire.
I wrote back to Mr James pointing out that, in contractual terms, ORA's letter constituted an offer and, as any first year law student knows, before a contract can come into being the other side must accept the terms.
Mr James then sent me a copy of a letter headed "Re: Expansion of ORA International", bearing the date 12 September 2000, from Mr Thomas to ORA, which, for the sake of brevity, we will take as the council's acceptance of ORA's terms.
As these two letters are now said to be part of ORA's agreement with the Council, I am rather surprised they were not included in the documents given to me when I asked for a copy of ORA's contract during the public audit.
But none of these letter can create a contract between the council and Euro-Ryall Ltd.
Firstly, the information so far provided contains no mention of Cllr Hall that can justify the use of the terms "principals" and "they" in the Leader's press release.
Secondly, ORA didn't set up a UK company as proposed in the letter of 2 September - Dr Ryan did
Thirdly, the promise made by ORA in its letter of 3 September cannot be the basis of a "contractually enforceable" agreement between the council and Euro-Ryall Ltd, with which ORA no legal connection, whatsoever.
The fact that Dr Ryan is a director of both companies is neither here nor there.
Lord Marshall is a director of both British Airways and Barclays Bank but nobody would suggest that a promise given as a director of one company could possibly bind the other.
While Dr Ryan might be the majority shareholder and main man in ORA, Dr Ryan and ORA are entirely separate legal entities.
The leading case on this subject (Lee v Lee's Air Farming Ltd) was decided by the House of Lords in 1961.
Mr Lee was the founder and majority shareholder in Lee Air Farming Ltd, which carried on business as a crop-spraying contractor. He piloted the company's only plane. He was killed in an air crash and his wife sought compensation from the insurers on the grounds of the company's negligence. The court decided in her favour on the basis that at the time of the accident he was working for the company as its employee - even though in every sense except the legal, Mr Lee and the company were one and the same physical entity.
And lastly, when the exchange of letters between ORA and Mr Thomas took place in the first half of September 2000, Euro-Ryall Ltd hadn't even been formed.
What seems to have happened is that Mr Thomas was on a frolic of his own and got out of his depth.
And, as so often, it has fallen to Mr James to try to clear up the mess.
I fancy that, when I have finished unearthing the truth about this affair, he will not consider it one of his more successful operations.


Eating for two

Leafing through my vast archive of councillors' expense claims the other night, I came across an interesting specimen dated April 2001 and bearing the name Alwyn Luke,
During that April the ex-Monster Muncher travelled to Caernarfon to attend a meeting of the Nuclear Free Local Authorities.
When he returned he presented a claim for 276 miles at 50p, B&B, £42.00 and two gammon and chips dinners at the Black Boy Inn at £6.25 a throw.
The receipts from the Black Boy are interesting because both of them were originally dated 26 April but one has been crudely altered to 27 April.
As his expense claim shows that he was back home in Fishguard at 6.30 pm on the 27 April, he clearly couldn't have been eating dinner in Caernarfon that evening.
Unless, of course, he has had the Tardis back from Brian Hall!
Two possible explanations occur to Old Grumpy.
Either all that talk of neutrons and gamma rays had given him such a raging appetite that he polished off a double helping, or he dined with a companion, probably his wife.
The two separate bills would indicate the latter especially as they have consecutive serial numbers 8251 and 8252.
And being unable to claim expenses for his companion, he decided to resort to a spot of forgery to maximise his income.
As conclusive proof of just how dim some of our councillors are, he ended up putting the later date on the lower numbered bill.
And we are paying this serial expense fiddler £17,000 a year to Chair an Overview and Scrutiny Committee.
Over-claim and Screw-the-taxpayer Committee would be more his line of country
Immediately above the Caernarfon entry on the April form is a claim for 210 miles for a trip to Merthyr to attend a Welsh Local Government Association seminar on, would you believe, "Standards and ethical framework".
You couldn't make it up1


Inflated Bill

Another member of the council, whose expense claiming activities I have been tracking for the past 10 years, is the veteran member for Llangwm, Hook and Freystrop, Cllr Bill Hitchings, the £22,500 a year cabinet member with responsibility for the aged and infirm.
Some 16 weeks ago, on 13 November last year. I wrote a long letter to the District Auditor drawing his attention to Cllr Hitchings dubious, not to say illegal, expense claiming practices.
Of particular interest was a claim submitted in respect of a trip to some vastly important meeting in London for which he claimed subsistence of £94.03.
The form contained a printed declaration, signed by Cllr Hitchings, that: "I have actually paid the fares and made the other authorised payments shown and attach receipts to support my claim [council's emphasis]"
However, Hitchings had not submitted any receipts to justify his claim and some smart young clerk in the Finance Department sent him a standard letter informing him that payment would not be forthcoming.
That threat prompted Hitchings to produce the receipts.
What these showed was that his B&B cost £39.00 and his evening meal, at an Angus Steak House, £13.85.
As the mathematicians among you will already have calculated, £39.00 + £13.85 does not add up to the £94.03 that Cllr Hitchings claimed he had "actually paid".
So I wrote to the District Auditor suggesting that he might care to look into this and some of Cllr Hitchings' other unorthodox expense claiming practices,
Three months passed and on 10 February 2003 I wrote to the District Auditor asking for a progress report.
A fortnight later I received the following message: "A draft reply is currently with the council for comments and should be finalised shortly. Apologies for the delay in responding."
Obviously, the bureaucrats' perception of the meaning of "shortly" differs from mine because six weeks later I have still not had a definitive answer.
I did, however, receive a letter from the auditor, dated 19 March, informing me that: "The Council is currently obtaining one of the misplaced receipts and I will respond to you shortly [my emphasis]."
I can't imagine how the pointy heads in County Hall are going to talk their way out of this, but I'm certain they will try.


Unhealthy cronyism


I was interested in a report in last week's Western Telegraph on the concerns about the lack of any representative from the Tenby area on the board of the Local Health Group - the organisation set up to run the NHS in Pembrokeshire.
One of the purposes of these new arrangements is, in classical New Labour jargon, to increase democratic accountability by bringing control of the Health Service closer to the people.
To that end, the County Council has the right to appoint three members to the Board.
At its first Cabinet meeting, the County Council gave the Leader, Cllr Maurice Hughes, absolute power to make all appointments to outside bodies.
He duly appointed himself, and two of his Independent Political (sic) Group cronies: Roy Folland and Bill Hitchings, to the Local Health Group Board.
Where democracy comes in to this, I am not sure.
I, certainly, have never had the opportunity to vote on whatever vision these three have for the Health Service, and nor has anyone else.

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