17 December 2002

 

 

Unelected Mayor

While trying to impose some sort of order on the mountain of loose papers in the shed, I came across a press release issued by the Leader, Cllr Maurice Hughes, on the occasion of the defection of three Tories to the Independent Political (sic) Group in September 2001.
Welcoming the three repentant sinners into the fold (sheep; geddit?), Cllr Hughes expresses his pleasure that they "… have come to the conclusion that party politics has no part to play in the running of Pembrokeshire County Council."
This is a strange thing to say for the Leader of the ruling party, which holds secret group cabals before every important council meeting during which the members are told how they should vote.
Indeed, the same press release concludes: "We look forward to the Independently-controlled Pembrokeshire County Council continuing to provide high quality services for the people of this County."
It would seem to follow that, for the council to be "Independently-controlled"; someone must have control over the Independent members.
And, of course, if you are under someone's control, you cannot be independent.
This press release was issued during the debate on whether the council should have a mayor elected on a countywide vote, or the leader and cabinet model with which we are now stuck.
The idea of an elected mayor struck terror into the hearts of the ruling Independents because they knew it wouldn't be one of them and, as their meagre talents were hardly likely to commend them to whoever did find favour with the electorate, all that lovely Cabinet members' dosh (£22,500 a year) would go up in smoke.
As the Leader said in his press release: "I welcome the fact that all three new members of the Independent group are fully supportive of the Council's [Independent Political Group's] view that the most effective form of government for this County in future is with a Leader and Cabinet and that they oppose the folly of an all-powerful directly elected mayor."
Now we have the even greater folly of an all-powerful unelected mayor in the form of Cllr Hughes.
Under the new constitution, Cllr Hughes can hire and fire Cabinet members at will, and he is the only one out of the 60 elected members allowed to put items on the agenda..
The other three are the Chief Executive, Director of Finance and the Monitoring Officer.
Furthermore, he is the sole arbiter of who should become a local authority representative on boards of school governors throughout the county.
All this untrammelled power on the back of a non-existent manifesto and a few hundred votes in Merlins Bridge.
Surely an elected mayor would have more political legitimacy than that?
Hands up, anyone outside Merlins Bridge who voted for Maurice Hughes at the last election.

Closed shop

 

About halfway through my archaeological excavation of the shed, I came across another of Cllr Hughes' press releases, no doubt written for him by someone in the Marketing and Communications department (you get a feel for the style) regarding the employment of Cabinet member Brian Hall's business partner, Dr Michael Ryan, as an economic development consultant, in which the Leader states: "There is no secrecy whatsoever about Dr Ryan's work on behalf of the County Council."
How, if everything is open and above board, does Cllr Hughes explain the fact that, during the recent public audit of the council's books, the council refused a request for a copy of Dr Ryan's contract on the grounds that it was "commercially confidential"?
Only when it was pointed out to them that Section 15 of the Audit Commission Act 1998 states in clear terms that "persons interested" may "inspect the accounts to be audited and all books, deeds, contracts, bills, vouchers and receipts relating to them" did the council relent.
I have not been so fortunate in my efforts to obtain details of the council's £750,000 contract with F H Gilman & Co for tarmacking the main runway at Withybush Airfield.
I must admit to a certain amount of sloppiness on my part in this matter.
During the public audit, on 8 October to be exact, I asked for "Tender documents resurfacing Withybush Airfield".
Six days later, on 14 October, the council sent me a copy of the specification.
On the same day, I submitted a further request, couched in rather more precise language, which read: "I asked for tenders received for resurfacing Withybush airport - you sent me a specification".
The reply came on the 18 October: "Lowest tender received - F H Gilman & Co £757,539.50; 26/11/01."
So on Friday 25 October - the last day of the public audit - I made a third attempt to wring the required information out of the council.
This time I left them no wriggle room.
"Please provide copies of contract with F H Gilman including priced bills of quantities [which are part of the contract] - for resurfacing Withybush Airfield", I wrote.
Despite sending reminders to the Director of Finance on November 5 and, on November 28, to the Monitoring Officer, who is under a statutory duty to ensure the council complies with the law, I have still not received the information to which I am legally entitled by virtue of the Audit Commission Act 1998 (see above).
Democracy under the rule of law this certainly ain't.

 

Creative accountants

I have already recorded my difficulties in getting straight answers to simple questions out of the Leader and the Head of Marketing and Communications, Dai "Clam" Thomas (see Unanswered questions and Whodunit?).
However, perhaps the most slippery reply I have ever received from the County Council came from the dry as dust accountants in the Finance Department.
The council has a rule that when a member and an officer travel to a meeting together they are expected to travel in the officer's car because it is cheaper -15p a mile compared to 50p - "and [the member] will not be entitled to claim travelling expenses".
However, there is a get out: "Any arrangement to the contrary should again be agreed with myself [Director of Finance] or the Head of Financial Services".
So, when Old Grumpy discovered a member claiming large amounts of cash for driving to Cardiff and Swansea with an officer in the passenger seat, I naturally sought to close off all the bolt holes by asking the Finance Department if they could provide records of any such arrangements that had been approved.
I wrote: "Could I please have sight of these records or an assurance that no such 'arrangements to the contrary' have been made".
This question, you might think, is perfectly straightforward.
But the answer: "I am not aware of any such arrangements", is anything but.

Numbers games


Old Grumpy has now obtained a copy of the truancy figures for Pembrokeshire's secondary schools.
These you will remember were used, illegally (see Lawbreakers), as an excuse to exclude the public from a recent meeting of the Education Scrutiny Committee.
These statistics are set out in two tables - one covering all absences; the other unauthorised absences.
No doubt, when the officer from the Education Department took the old boys and girls on the committee through these figures they all nodded sagely.
After all, the use to which statistics are put during this sort of exercise is to give the proceedings a pseudo-scientific gloss.
But Old Grumpy has learned to take all statistics emanating from County Hall with a large pinch of salt.
For instance, I notice that for Pembroke School the figures show that the overall rate of absenteeism for 2002 at 10.3% of which 4.9% were unauthorised.
That leaves 5.4% authorised absences.
By contrast, St Davids has an overall rate of 8.2% of which none was unauthorised.
Indeed, the published figures show that there has been a zero rate of unauthorised absence from St Davids in every year since the County Council came into being in 1996.
From this is might be concluded that the children of Pembroke (5.4% authorised absences) are in a much better state of health than those in St Davids (8.2%) and that the little angels from St Davids never play truant while, on average, one in twenty of the Pembroke children are mitching off school at any given time.
However, what should always be remembered is that statistics rarely prove anything and that their principle function is to point to possible hypotheses that might explain apparent inconsistencies.
My favoured explanation for the above anomalies is that children in St Davids are way ahead of their Pembroke counterparts when it comes to forging Mummy's signature on sick notes.

Pensions inequality

 

Pensions are set to rise to the top of the agenda in the New Year as an increasing number of companies, faced with escalating costs, close their final salary schemes.
And as more and more people in the private sector look forward to a penurious retirement, it is not surprising that envious glances are being cast in the direction of generous public sector schemes where escalating costs can be met from escalating Council Tax bills.
Actuarial calculations show that to buy a pension in the open market for the average public sector worker (salary £25,000 a year - pension after 40 years service £12,500) would cost in excess of £300,000.
On that basis, the pension of someone on £100,000 a year would be worth £1.2million.
And it has not escaped notice that the bulk of the funds in public sector pension schemes come from taxpayers, many of whom cannot afford to save for themselves.
The current Pembrokeshire County Council scheme costs taxpayers more than £5million a year.
That is to cover the 9% of salary that the employer (taxpayer) pays into the scheme compared to 6% by the employee.
So, in respect of our notional £100,000 a year man, we pay £9,000 into the pot annually in order to finance £600 of his £1,000 a week pension.
And, it is not just poor taxpayers who are subsidising the rich.
Because pensions are linked to final salary and not contributions, lower paid workers actually pay a bigger proportion than those who rise through the ranks.
To take a hypothetical example: after 40 years, someone who starts and finishes on £20,000 a year will have made total contributions of £40,800 (average salary £20,000 x 6% x 40) - almost five times their annual half-pay pension
Someone who starts on £20,000 and rises to £100,000 on retirement will, assuming linear progression, make contributions of £122,400 (average salary over period £60,000 x 6% x 40) - only 2.5 times their £50,000 annual pension.
So, on a pro rata basis, the low paid council worker's personal contribution to their pension will be double that of their most senior colleagues.
And similarly, the taxpayer's contribution to the pot will be unequally distributed to the benefit of the higher paid.
How such an inequitable system ever came to be adopted, heaven knows.
My best guess is that it is something to do with the fact that few members of the typing pool get to attend the meetings of the Local Government Association where these things are decided.
But what I think is certain is that taxpayers will not long tolerate a situation where they are expected to fork out for the sort of gold-plated pensions that they, themselves, are no longer able to afford.

 

Sinners repent

 

It would seem that, yet again, somebody in County Hall has been risking disciplinary action by logging on to my website: contrary to the rules.
Two weeks ago, I drew attention (The unquestionables) to the Stalinist nature of a report on an application for a licence for the infamous Chequers nightclub in Penally by the council's environmental health department, in which it was stated that the applicant: one Thomas Sinclair (jun), was not "a fit and proper person" to hold the licence because of "his propensity to unfairly criticise the Authority in a variety of public forums …"
Despite this being described by the council as its "formal and definitive response", Old Grumpy notices that, in the report before today's licensing committee, all references to the applicant's less than complimentary remarks have been expunged.
No doubt one of the pointy heads in the legal department, having read my website, has realised that this crude attempt to use the council's licensing power to silence its critics wouldn't look too clever if challenged in the courts.
Alas, this gesture towards the Rules of Natural Justice and the principles of Human Rights is probably too late.
Having committed its thoughts to paper, the Council has demonstrated its bias against the applicant and no amount of backtracking can cure that.
In a properly functioning democracy it is the role of our elected representatives to protect the citizen, however unpopular his cause, from oppression by an over-mighty executive.
As defending the constitution seems beyond most councillors, perhaps they could stand up for the English language by telling the authors of this report that "proprietary", which occurs five times in the document, refers to property, and that the word meaning fitness or appropriateness, for which they are groping, is "propriety".

Voting power

I have just heard Andrew Smith on the radio announcing the setting up of a Pension's Commission under former CBI chief Adair Turner.
I suppose that, from a politician's point of view, kicking the issue into the long grass is preferable to telling us the truth; which is that increased lifespan and falling birthrates make the present set-up unsustainable.
During his speech Mr Smith said we are all living longer,"which is a good thing".
At my age, I have to be careful what I say about this matter but I am not so sure he is right.
I can think of several reasons why the World might be a better place if for every person that lived to a 100, two lived to be 50.
Not that we old fogies need worry about the possibility of politicians introducing a "Logan's Run" scenario.
After all, we have votes; the unborn don't.

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