August 29 2006

Above criticism

Old Grumpy nearly choked on his cornflakes (sausage, egg and tomato actually) when I read Christopher Booker's column in this week's Sunday Telegraph.
Mr Booker recounted the story of David Adami, a member of North Dorset district council, who, because of his criticisms of the local authority, had fallen foul of the Standards Board for England .
Some of Mr Adami's criticisms, such as that whenever he tried to find out what was really going on inside the council he was always fobbed off with "non-answers", and that the organisation was "influenced and controlled" by the officers and not the elected members, ring a bell with Old Grumpy.
But what seems to have brought matters to a head was his attempt to discover the truth about an arrangement whereby the chief executive was paid £37,000, tax-free, to stay on for a few weeks after the expiry of his contract.
The chief executive filed a complaint, including the charge that Mr Adami had "attempted to reopen old issues", and the Standards Board found him guilty and barred him from being a councillor for four years.
He appealed to the High Court and was reinstated, but the Standards Board went to the Court of Appeal where, according to Booker, the High Court's decision was overturned on a technicality and the case referred back to the Standards Board for reconsideration..
The upshot was that the Standards Board again found him guilty on all counts, but reduced his suspension to three years.
Must remember to watch my step.

Pole position


At the risk of raking over old coals, Old Grumpy is still trying to discover exactly what went on in the first few months after 1 August 2000 when ORA International Ltd (managing director Cllr Brian Hall's former business partner Dr Michael Ryan) was appointed as economic development consultant by Pembrokeshire county council.
Material recently released under the Freedom of Information Act, contains a document showing that ORA Ltd had a branch office in Warsaw.
Copies of expense claims obtained during the 2001 public audit inspection show that, in May 2001, Pembrokeshire taxpayers forked out £1,278 in travelling and other expenses for Dr Ryan's trip to the Polish capital.
This included £650 for a return flight from Dublin (no Ryanair for him) and £330 for hotel expenses in Warsaw and Storograd.
On the assumption that these hotel bills represent four nights' accommodation, you have to add £1,800 to cover his daily fee of £450, making £3,000 in all.
Arithmetically, so far, so good.
However, I made the mistake of speculating that Dr Ryan's trip to Poland might not have been, as tax lawyers put it, "wholly and exclusively for the purpose of the [county council's] business", and that he might have taken the opportunity, while in Warsaw, to pop into his branch office for his own ends.
Nothing, it seems, could be further from the truth.
The council now informs me that Dr Ryan went to Poland to conduct negotiations with ". . .a Polish vodka company which was looking to set up a base within the EU and, more specifically, Pembrokeshire."
Unfortunately, the council says, talks broke down when it became apparent the the company "had unrealistic aspirations of unachievable levels of State financial aid . . "
It would seem that the top management of this company may have been spending too much time in the product evaluation section of the quality control department because, in mid-2001, the accession talks, which would give all Polish companies an "EU base", were at an advanced stage and, in any case, in order to take advantage of cheaper labour behind the former iron curtain, all the investment flows were in the opposite direction.
Sadly, I can't tell you much more at the moment because no records have been kept and the council can't even remember the name of the company involved.
I have written to the council suggesting that Dr Ryan, whose £450-a-day contract was renewed on 1 August, might be able to fill in the gaps.
Mind you, if I spent four days in a vodka distillery, I doubt I'd remember which day of the week it was, never mind some name consisting mainly of Cs and Zs.

Off the record

It seems that, for a large public body, the county council is rather careless when it comes to keeping records.
For instance, according to the district audit services report on the relationship between Hall and Ryan the authority's standing orders require that, before consultants are engaged, the council's management board has to agree that there are not enough in-house staff to carry out the work, and that there is sufficient money in the budget to cover the cost.
The auditor reports: "the chief executive has informed us that the decision to appoint a consultant was discussed and accepted by the management board although this was not recorded at the time."
And, Dr Ryan was appointed on the strength of a verbal reference ". . . from a reliable source known to senior officers. The information and comments received at the time were not formally documented, however . . .".
Then there is the confusion over when Hall and Ryan first met.
The auditor records: "Initially, Cllr Hall informed us that he met Dr Ryan in September or October 2000".
"Subsequently, Cllr Hall provided us with a private letter he wrote to the Leader [Maurice Hughes] dated 20 September 2000 setting out that he was going into business with Dr Ryan."
So it couldn't be October, then.
As this was a private letter the, council has no record of it.
However, according to Dr Ryan, he first clapped eyes on Hall during a visit to Pembrokeshire between 4-7 October 2000.
The auditor made no effort to resolve what he described as "this apparent inconsistency" though he was told that the chief executive recalled introducing them to each other "in a meeting in his office after ORA Ltd had been awarded the contact.".
ORA was awarded the contract on 1 August 2000 and the only times Dr Ryan was in Pembrokeshire between that date and the 16 October 2000, when he faxed Hall with details of their plans to trade in Pembrokeshire (see Hall-Ryan), contrary to his promise in a letter dated 3 September not to do so, were the periods 14-18 August and 4-7 October.
The October 16 fax starts: "I have at last completed my first draft of the Business Plan" and goes on to detail the various schemes in which they are planning, including the fact that: "To date Dr Ryan and Brian Hall have been requested to participate in a number of projects, such as:
Hotel recreation & Conference Centre Project(Masterplanning and Project Management)
International Investment Project aligned to Pembroke Dock redevelopment (my emphasis)
European Commission Objective 1 Project Finance Design & Submission."
Is it possible that all this had been achieved in the maximum 12 days between 4 October and 12 October?
If not, their introduction in the chief executive's office must have taken place during Dr Ryan's visit to Pembrokeshire in mid-August.
My attempt to achieve greater clarity by submitting written questions to full council was met with studied vagueness.
I was told: "The head of marketing and communications had been informed orally by Dr Ryan during October/November 2000 about the intended formation of the company to be known a Euro-Ryall Ltd."
And "The chief executive had been informed orally in early autumn by Cllr Hall of the latter's discussions with Dr Ryan about the possibility of forming a company".
October/November! early autumn! can't these people afford a diary?

Smoke signals


I heard on the radio that researchers in America (where else?) have discovered that the cells in the blood vessels of those of us who lead unhealthy lifestyles appear to be 40 years older than our chronological age.
As the other parts of us are unlikely to qualify, the Queen should, perhaps, consider sending our arteries a telegram on our sixtieth birthdays.
Meanwhile, up in Scotland, the anti-smoking nannies are having a fine old time with Mel Smith being barred from smoking a cigar while playing the part of Churchill at the Edinburgh Festival and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones under threat of prosecution for, horror of horrors, smoking a cigarette on stage.
To avoid making complete fools of themselves, the Scottish legal authorities have decided that Mr Richards, who usually smokes something rather more stimulating than tobacco, will not be prosecuted.
No doubt, he will be terribly relieved to have avoided the maximum £50 fine.
It is hard to believe that, just two hundred years ago, Edinburgh was the centre of the Scottish - some would say, European - Enlightenment, when such great liberal thinkers as Adam Smith and David Hume could be found wandering the streets.
It was a sad day, indeed, when bossy socialists ousted liberals as the UK's primary anti-Tory movement.

Modesty forbids

A reader has e-mailed to observe that there has been little mention of my vegetable garden this year.
"Has there been a plague of locusts in Liddeston, or what?" he asks.
Well, to tell the truth, my garden has been so magnificent this year that it is almost impossible to write about it without sounding boastful.
And, being a modest sort of chap, I felt it best to keep quiet.
However, seeing as you ask, almost everything I've planted has been a rip-roaring success.
Even the carrots, which usually end up riddled with maggots, have turned out well.
Being a sceptic, I regard stories about planting schemes designed to deter pests as akin to voodoo, but this year, acting on the advice of SF, I planted the carrots between two rows of onions and it seems to have done the trick.
However, before I concede that he can tell me anything about gardening, the experiment will have to be repeated for at least ten years.
After all, it might be a fluke.
Another crop which usually gives me trouble is cabbages.
If the root fly doesn't get them the caterpillars will.
This year there has been no sign of the cabbage root fly (run off with the carrot fly, I wouldn't be surprised) and I'm managing to keep the caterpillars under control with a combination of spraying and egg destruction.
If I paid myself the minimum wage, the savoys would come out at about a fiver apiece, but if a job's worth doing, it's worth doing well.
As for the sprouting broccoli, it is growing so vigorously that I've had to knock stakes in to support it.
And I'm hoping my son in law and a couple of his friends will come round and give me a hand to carry the pumpkins indoors.

Clean bowled

Mr Roy McGurn, author of the website, has e-mailed to say I was wrong to claim that a cricket ball cannot pick up speed off the pitch (See Spin and swing)
As he points out, if topspin is imparted to the ball, the rotational energy will be converted to linear energy when the ball strikes the ground making it possible for the ball to leave the pitch faster than it arrived.
He draws my attention to the backspin used by snooker players, which has the same effect in reverse.
This seems to be correct in theory, though I am not so sure how you put topspin on a cricket ball, especially if you're a fast bowler.

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