2 August 2005

 

Libel on the rates

It is almost two years since I wrote a series of pieces about the intimidatory tactics used by the then Leader of the county council, Maurice Hughes, in an attempt to bully Plaid Cwmru Leader Cllr Michael Williams into silence (see Sound and fury).
After reading my column, Cllr Williams had become concerned about the relationship between Cllr Brian Hall and the council's Irish-based economic development consultant Dr Michael Ryan (see Hall-Ryan).
So he wrote to the leader suggesting that Cllr Hall should come out and refute my allegations in order to put the issue to bed.
I should point out that Cllr Williams was holding a rather strong hand because I had provided him with a copy of Dr Ryan's fax to Cllr Hall dated 16 October 2000 whereas the council were unaware that I even had such a document.
Clearly, someone in county hall decided that the it would be a good tactic to drive a wedge between myself and Cllr Williams so a letter was despatched in the following terms:
"Firstly, you make a serious mistake of apparently accepting without question everthing you read on the Old Grumpy website. I would remind you that this same website has hounded Councillor Hall for many months over allegations that he had 'fiddled his expenses'.
These allegations of 'expense fiddling' have now been investigated at every possible level and I hate to think how many tens of thousands of pounds have been wasted on this ridiculous wild goose chase."
This letter was signed "Maurice Hughes - Leader", though I doubt he actually wrote it.
I would remind readers that, during this investigation, a senior police officer attempted to mislead me by saying that they were powerless to proceed with their enquiries because the council were not prepared to make a complaint and the police were told, in a signed statement by the council's Director of Finance, that Cllr Hall's expense claim for 1 February 2001, was "correct in every detail".
The police seem to have been prepared to accept this statement in spite of the fact that I had provided them with documents which showed that, on that day, Hall crossed the Severn Bridge at 12.56 pm; bought a meal at the service station near Magor at 1.08 pm; and, according to his claim form, left Pembroke Dock at 2.00 pm on the same day to attend a meeting in Swansea, which, incidentally, commenced at 2.00 pm, claiming £63.00 for the return jorney.
Nobody has yet offered a satisfactory explanation as to how he managed to eat lunch and travel the 125 miles from Magor to Pembroke Dock in 52 minutes.
The reason is not far to seek because it is obvious to anyone with a IQ north of 75 that Cllr Hall called in at Swansea on his way back from London and, therefore, the claim for £63 was fraudulent.
But, I digress.
As far as I was concerned, the words ". . . I hate to think how many tens of thousands of pounds have been wasted on this ridiculous wild goose chase." were intended to mean that I had made false allegations to the police.
Now, being called a liar by Maurice Hughes is a the equivalent of having your child-rearing practices questioned by King Herod, so on 20 November 2003 I wrote to him demanding an apology and a retraction of the offending words and threatening legal action for libel if both were not forthcoming.
I must say I was somewhat surprised, two months later, to receive a letter from a Cardiff law firm, Dolmans, denying that the words complained of were defamatory.
Why, I asked myself, was Hughes paying expensive Cardiff solicitors to do something that is well within the capabilities of most local firms.
During my recent trawl through the county council's books, I came across the answer.
He wasn't paying, you were.
On tapping "Dolmans" into the computer up came a payment voucher for £4,360 with my name on it next to the identical reference number to that on Dolmans' letter to me.
Still, there is the consolation of knowing that, if I say something out of turn in my capacity as an elected member, I can rely on the taxpayer to pick up my legal bills when I am sued.
To the best of my recollection, Dolman's involvement ran to writing three letters on the council's/Hughes' behalf.
Ever get the feeling you might be in the wrong job?
As you paid for this letter to be written, and for the defence of its contents, it seems only fair that you should see what you got for your money (see Hughes letter)


Safety in numbers

Two emails have arrived attacking my analysis of the comparative safety of the dualled and non-dualled sections of the A40 (see Fatally flawed).
One, from a regular correspondent in Fishguard, makes the perfectly reasonable point that any comparison should include traffic density as one of the factors in the equation ; the other is from a politician.
My man in Abergwaun argues that the A40 splits at St Clears, with roughly half the traffic turning off on to the A477 and the remainder continuing on towards Haverfordwest and the accident statistics should be weighted to take this into account.
I agree.
However, the article I was criticising based its conclusions entirely on raw accident numbers and all I was doing was pointing out that the numbers did not justify the conclusions reached.
In any case, the splitting of traffic at St Clears, into whatever proportions, does not fully meet the requirement that traffic density should be factored in because it makes no allowance for the difference in the number of local journeys, from, say, Narberth and Tenby to Haverfordwest, or from Whitland and St Clears to Carmarthen, that only use part of the 30-mile stretch.
As for the politician's email, it invites me to consider whether I feel safer on the dualled section or the single carriageway "where every b----- is trying to overtake."
Well, what I feel is neither here nor there.
Why use a subjective test when it is possible, with some careful statistical analysis, to arrive at a reasonably accurate, objective conclusion.
After all, the urge to feel safer has persuaded several thousand Londoners have taken to their bikes following the July 7 attack on the underground system.
This despite the fact that statistics show that cycling is many times more dangerous than travelling on the tube.
Indeed, I read somewhere that the greatest loss of life caused by the Hadfield disaster was not in the train crash itself but among the extra motorists forced on to already congested roads by their concerns that the railways were unsafe.


Guns and poses

 

It is interesting to speculate about the extent that our society runs on mythology rather than rational analysis.
Take for instance the Government's claim that "we will never give into terrorism" while at the same time making concessions to the IRA for the simple reason that they have guns and explosives.
Or, what about: "We will not allow terrorists to change our way of life" while a perfectly innocent man is pinned down on the floor and shot eight times to the head on the merest suspicion that he might be suicide bomber.
That seems like a fundamental change to our way of life to me.
But the greatest myth of all is that we still live in a true democracy.
The greatest change in my lifetime has been the steady increase in the power of the executive over our elected representatives.
That phenomena stretches all the way from Parliament where the Government has almost complete control over a bunch of careerist Labour MPs to County Hall where the only question most members ask when the Chief Officers Management Board (COMB) tells them to jump is: "How high?"
By far the most shocking thing about the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes was not that the police made a mistake, but the way in which the shoot-to-kill policy was introduced.
No democrat can be happy to hear an elected member of the Metropolitan Police Authority tell the Today programme that, until the fatal shooting, she had no idea that such a policy existed.
Surely, it is time our elected politicians took ownership of such policies.
By all means, if the police think shoot-to-kill is the only way to control the menace of suicide bombers, let them bring forward proposals to that effect for elected politicians to debate.
But to have such decisions taken behind closed doors, without any public accountability, whatsoever, is surely unacceptable.
The other thing demonstrated by the fatal shooting of the Brazilian electrician is the extent to which spin now infects our public life.
Within a couple of hours of the incident, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner was assuring us that the dead man was definitely connected with the failed suicide attacks of July 21.
That proved not to be true.
Now we hear that doubt has been cast on the version of events that had Mr Menezes acting suspiciously by vaulting over a ticket barrier and running off when challenged by the police.
The best the authorities can now come up with is that he was in the UK on false papers - hardly a capital offence.
Of course, the police have a difficult, almost impossible, task countering this lethal menace that now confronts us, but it will be even more difficult if they ever abandon the principle that, in this country, policing is carried out with the public's authority and consent.
Fortunately, one this Government's more far-sighted reforms was the replacement of the system whereby police authority investigated police authority with a completely independent Police Complaints Commission.
So, at least, we can be assured that there will be no establishment-sponsored cover-up.

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