2 December 2002

Unanswered questions


County Council Leader, Cllr Maurice Hughes, has finally condescended to answer my email of the 11 November 2002 in which I sought clarification of certain matters relating to the relationship between Cabinet member Cllr Brian Hall and the authority's economic development consultant, Dr Michael Ryan, which had been the subject of a press release issued in the Leader's name the previous week (see November 12).
You will recall that in December 2000, some four months after Dr Ryan's appointment as consultant, he and Cllr Hall had formed a company, Euro-Ryall Ltd.
In Old Grumpy's humble opinion there is a potential conflict of interest in this situation.
However, to head off such suspicions, Cllr Hughes put out the press release which stated that unnamed officers of the council had approved the formation of Euro-Ryall Ltd after being given assurances by the two men that there was no intention to trade in Pembrokeshire.
In response, I asked him to name the officers involved, the date on which the discussions took place.
I was also interested to know whether the agreement not to trade in Pembrokeshire was an enforceable contract or merely a bare promise.
I thought these were important questions but His Leadership clearly didn't agree because, exactly three weeks after my original email, he replied:

"I note your e-mails.
The press statement was a comprehensive one, covering all the relevant issues.
I have nothing further to add"

It is hard to believe that these words were written by someone who takes seriously the idea of open accountable democracy.
And twenty two words in twenty two days hardly seems the sort of productivity one expects from someone on £35,000 a year.
The Government should, perhaps, have insisted on modernisation before giving Cllr Hughes and his chums an 80% pay rise earlier this year.
What struck me was the similarity between this email and the letter I received the previous week from the Council's chief spin doctor Dai "Clam" Thomas (see November 26) which also ended with the words "I have nothing further to add".
Who's writing whose letters?

Questions answered


However much His Leadership would like to sweep this issue under the carpet, I am not about to let him.
In addition to the issue of potential conflict of interest, there is also the question of why this consultancy agreement has never been formally reported to members.
Indeed, until I dug the facts out of the files most members were not even aware of Dr Ryan's existence.
Obviously a favoured few, Cllr Hall included, did know what was going on, but I would be interested to know, given that this arrangement predates the Cabinet system by almost two years, on what basis this magic circle was selected.
To help those members who are not on the inside track, Old Grumpy has been doing some research into the efforts of Dr Ryan's company, ORA International Ltd, on our behalf.
Part of his remit, judging from one invoice I came across, is to act as the council's travel agent in Ireland.
The invoice in question is for a two-day visit to Limerick by seven members of the County Council's nomenclatura on which the good doctor has written: "Please forward [payment] to me as I paid all from my personal account".
Attempts to find out who, exactly, went on this trip have, so far, hit a brick wall.
What I have been able to establish, from documents unearthed during my recent trawl through the council's books, is that they flew from Withybush in a private plane (cost £1,310); stayed overnight at the Castleroy Park Hotel (£740); lunched at the University Club (£185); were driven around in a hired coach (£460) and had dinner at the Dunraven Hotel (50% of the cost, £335 - total £670).
That works out at a penny or two short of £84-a-head, so, whatever the mystery surrounding the identity of these Magnificent Seven (eight including the good doctor, himself), we can be certain they did not go hungry to bed.
The total cost of this particular jaunt? £2,652 not including Dr Ryan's £450 a day fees.
Perhaps, I missed the meeting when the outcome of this noshathon was reported to our elected representatives!
Also of interest is Dr Ryan's trip to Poland in May 2001 for which he submitted an expense claim for £1,270
It is not clear from the invoice how long he spent in Warsaw and Storagard, though, as his hotel bills totalled £335, and Poland is a cheap destination, we can assume that we can add at least five days consultancy at £450 a throw.
And, as the return air fare was £650, it is a safe bet that he didn't fly with Ryanair.
Silly old me always thought that Poland was a poor country which was looking for inward investment.
Indeed, only yesterday in the financial pages of one of the Sunday papers I read that German companies, attracted by the prospect of cheap labour, are decamping, wholesale, to the former Warsaw Pact area.
Bravo Pembrokeshire County Council for trying to buck the trend.
In the previous month the indefatigable Dr Ryan knocked up another £1450 expenses bill during five days fighting our corner at the IASP (International Association of Science Parks) conference in Bilboa.
Oh, and, I nearly forgot, £2,000 worth of fees.
If you add to the cost of Dr Ryan's Polish and Spanish expeditions, £18,000 of consultants fees, £3,300 of other sundry travel expenses and more than £2,000 we have paid for him to stay at the Cleddau Bridge and Lamphey Court Hotels the total cost to the taxpayer is a shade under £26,000 for the financial year 2001/2002.
Assuming a similar rate of attrition for 2000/2001, and the current year, we will be in for £75,000 come next August.
Some going for 34 days service a year.


The unquestionables


Our Welsh Assembly member Dr Richard Edwards is standing down at the next election, due to be held in May 2003.
Old Grumpy will miss his trenchant criticism of what he refers to as our "Stalinist" County Council and his references to County Hall as "Kremlin on Cleddau".
However, his leaving the political scene is not all bad news because, during his time in office, he has usurped my position as the Independent Political (sic) Group's principal hate-figure.
I can tell you, I was less than gruntled when, a couple of months ago, an Independent Group mole reported that, at one of their secret meetings, a full ten minutes was spent excoriating Dr Edwards and only a few seconds on me.
His retirement from active politics will allow me to regain my place in the sun.
Reading the report about an application for a Public Entertainment Licence in last week's Mercury, it would seem that the County Council is so irredeemably totalitarian that I won't be short of material on which to base my bid for top spot.
According to the Mercury, one of the grounds given by the council's Environmental Health Department for recommending that the application be refused is that the applicant, one Thomas Sinclair (jun), is not "a fit and proper" person because of "... his propensity to unfairly criticise the Authority in a variety of public forums on the manner it approaches its licensing function".
During my time at the Mercury, there were several occasions when people offered me stories about the County Council on condition that I didn't publish their names for fear of persecution.
Having watched the Planning Committee in action, I could understand their problem.
But it never occurred to me that the Council would commit its utter contempt for the concept of freedom under Rule of Law to paper.
In his book "Capitalism and Freedom", the Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman argues that economic freedom is a necessary condition for political freedom.
He gives as an example the Hollywood blacklists which were designed to prevent suspected communist sympathisers from working in the film industry.
As Friedman points out, these blacklists were largely ineffective because the motion picture moguls were interested in making money and that meant employing people - often under assumed names - on the basis of their talent rather than their political views.
But, he says, imagine what would happen if the film studios were under the ownership and control of the State - or Pembrokeshire County Council.
And to think the Government is proposing to transfer all licensing matters from the Magistrates Courts to local authorities.
If Dr Edwards has ambitions to spend his retirement running a little country pub - The Stalin Arms, perhaps - he should forget it.

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