20 December 2005

 

Unrepresentatives

 

According to pembrokeshiretv.com, Haverfordwest town council has passed a unanimous resolution calling for the resignation of Cllr Sian James from the Local Health Board.
Sian who? I hear you say.
Well, Cllr James is one of your two county council representatives on the board - the other is Cllr David Wildman - and Haverfordwest town councillors are of the view that she hasn't kicked up enough of a fuss about the downgrading, if that's what is being proposed, of Withybush Hospital.
Why Cllr Wildman escapes their wrath is not altogether clear, though it may simply be that, as the cabinet member for health and well-being, Cllr James has been more visible during the consultation exercise.
However, what I am interested in is the process by which these two came to be your democratic representatives on this important body.
Firstly, like the rest of your county councillors they had to get themselves elected.
I have not seen their election addresses, but I doubt whether anyone who voted for them did so on the basis of their proposals for health provision in Pembrokeshire.
Having got themselves elected, Cllrs Wildman and James signed up for the Independent Political Group, which promptly appointed, or should that be anointed, Cllr John Davies as Leader.
Cllr Davies, who has absolute power where appointments to Cabinet and all outside bodies are concerned, then elevated our two councillors to the cabinet with responsibility for health and wellbeing (Cllr James) and the aged and infirm (Cllr Wildman).
The Cabinet members with these two portfolios were the obvious choices to sit on the local health board, and the leader duly appointed them.
All very logical, except, as far as I am aware, nobody in Pembrokeshire has any idea what, if anything, their representatives stand for on issues concerning health.


Democratic decencies

As regular readers will know, Old Grumpy has a poor opinion of the Independent Political Group, which I regard as a species of electoral fraud.
It wouldn't be so bad if they showed any signs of understanding the basic democratic decencies.
Take, for instance, the role of the chairman.
Most people, whether they have served on a committee or not, know that the chairman is expected to be impartial.
Yet this absolutely fundamental principle is regularly flouted during meetings of the county council.
At last Thursday's meeting, Labour leader Joyce Watson was summing up at the end of a debate which, as the proposer of the motion, standing orders allowed her to do.
During Cllr Watson's speech, her Labour colleague Cllr Sue Perkins rose on a point of order, only to be waved away by the chairman, Cllr Clive Collins, who told her he was ending the debate once Cllr Watson's closing speech was finished..
But, no sooner had Cllr Watson sat down than the chairman allowed the Leader to get up and contribute his two-pennyworth to the "closed" debate.
Two issues arise: firstly, the standing orders provide that "A member may raise a point of order at any time. The chairman will hear them immediately."
So, the chairman had no right to refuse Cllr Perkins' intervention.
And, secondly, even if the chairman did have the power to silence Cllr Perkins, it hardly seems in keeping with the British tradition of fair play to waive the rules for the Leader.
Part of the problem is that the Chairman, unlike, say, the Speaker of the House of Commons, maintains his party ties.
A couple of years ago Cllr Bill Philpin proposed that, during his term of office, the Chairman should cease to be a member of any party.
That was rejected on the grounds that it would be illegal to deny any member the right to freedom of association.
That is fair enough, but there is nothing to prevent the Chairman from voluntarily distancing himself from party politics.
For instance, before every council meeting the Independent Political group holds a secret party meeting where tactics are discussed and members are told how to vote.
I am told that Cllr Collins attends these meetings, though it seems obvious to me that any pretence to impartiality must go out of the window the moment he puts his foot through the door.
Still, I suppose, the idea that, for democracy to function properly, the majority must exercise a degree of self-restraint is not an easy one to grasp for people who see nothing inconsistent in standing as independents and then joining a political party.
What they should try to get into their heads is that just because you have the right to do something doesn't necessarily mean it is the right thing to do.


Slippery customers

 

Last week, it came to my attention that a former member of the county council had expressed the opinion that I was "banging on" about certain issues regarding Cllr Brian Hall.
I know exactly what he means because I sometimes get bored with the subject myself.
However, in my defence, I should say that the frequency of Cllr Hall's appearances in this column is directly proportional to his malign influence on democratic politics in Pembrokeshire.
Furthermore, readers should understand that dealing with the county council is like wrestling with a greased octopus and persistence and perseverance are the only options.
Added to that is the fact that there is no way of making progress through the normal democratic channels because when the going gets rough the Independent Political (sic) Group can always fall back on its 38-22 majority to bale itself out.
As an example of how slippery these people are I offer the following exchange of emails between myself and the Leader regarding Cllr Hall's behind-the-scenes activities in respect of the controversial plans to site a 34-caravans hostel for LNG workers in Waterston.
When the matter came before the planning committee, at which Hall was present, it was suggested, albeit obliquely, by Cllr Ken Edwards that Cllr Hall might have an interest to declare because of his close relationship with the applicant.
Clearly, it is unacceptable for someone who is, in effect, a member of the jury to double up as the applicant's advocate.
I was present as a spectator, and taking a keen interest in what was being said because I was in possession of two expense claims submitted by Cllr Hall which seemed to provide evidence of this relationship see(Invisible man and In denial).
In response to Cllr Edwards' statement Cllr Hall said: "I can assure everyone, I have never been on that site. I have been on another site relating to housing.

So I sent the following email to the Leader, together with copies of the two expense claims.
I wrote:

"During the debate on the above at yesterday's planning committee, Cllr Brian Hall stated categorically that he had no interest to declare in the matter because he had never visited the site.
Are you able to reconcile that statement with the two expense claims he submitted in respect of 11/01/05 and 31/01/05 (see attachments)?
If you are unable to offer an explanation for this apparent contradiction, how do you reconcile Cllr Hall's continuing presence in your Cabinet with the "highest ethical standards"; promised when you accepted the position of Leader?"

 

The Leader replied

"Further to your email, I have now spoken to Cllr Hall who is able to assure me he has not visited the specific site in question at Waterston. I understand that the applicant owns other sites in the vicinity which have been the subject of discussion about potential development. In the circumstances, I do not see that there is any issue relating to the Code of Conduct in this case."

Now, what I have learned, after years of dealing with the county council, is to take careful note of what they don't say.
In the above example, Cllr John Davies doesn't say that he is satisfied that Cllr Hall hadn't visited the application site, merely that Cllr Hall was able to "assure" him that that was the case.
That, of course, gives him a get-out if somebody turns up with hard evidence of Cllr Hall's presence because he can then claim to have been misled.
And then there is the beautifully vague "potential development" which can cover almost anything.
However, what is clear from the expense claims is that, on at least two occasions, Hall was in County Hall with the applicant or his agents discussing, not some vague "potential development" but "D Thomas LNG" and "Hostel LNG" and following those two meetings he travelled to Waterston to visit "site for the above" and "siting of hostel planning consent".
So, I wrote back:

Dear Cllr Davies,
Whether or not there is a breach of the Code of Conduct is not the main issue.
Cllr Hall told the planning committee that he had never visited the proposed caravan site which was to be used as a hostel for LNG
workers.
Clearly, from the travelling expense claims forwarded to you, Cllr Hall twice claimed mileage allowance for going to Waterston.
On the first occasion (11 Jan 2005) he visited "site for above" in Waterston following a meeting in County Hall with A Colley
regarding "D Thomas Hostel LNG"
Mr D Thomas is the managing Director of both Coast to Coast caravans and the applicant for the LNG caravan site, Accommodate Ltd.
On the second occasion (31 Jan 2005), Cllr Hall met C[oast to Coast] Caravans, T[aylor] Woodrow in County hall re "Hostel LNG".
Following that meeting he travelled to Waterston "Re siting of hostel planning consent".
It seems to me that, provided what Cllr Hall told the planning committee is true, there are two possibilities:
(a) That there was a proposal for second proposed LNG hostel in Waterston for which planning consent was being sought, or
(b) Cllr Hall claimed mileage for journeys that he did not undertake.

The Leader's response was wonderfully brief:

"It is my understanding that consideration was given to potential development of LNG hostelling at other sites in the Waterston vicinity."

This follows what has become a familiar pattern.
The object is to cast doubt on what seems the obvious explanation without actually saying anything that can be directly refuted.
So, we have phrases like "I have spoken to Cllr Hall who has been able to assure me . . . " and "It is my understanding" and words like "consideration" "potential" and, my favourite: "vicinity".
And, again, notice what he doesn't say.
He doesn't actually say, for instance, that Cllr Hall visited these "other sites", merely that such sites existed.
Nor does he say that these "other sites" were in the ownership of the people Cllr Hall met in County Hall on 11 and 21 January 2005.
In any case, what Hall told the planning committee was that his visits to Waterston were to do with housing, though his expense claim clearly shows that they in connection with an LNG hostel.
And, conversely, if they were to do with "potential development of LNG hostelling at other sites in the Waterston vicinity." then Cllr Hall was not being truthful when he told the planning committee that his only visits to Waterson related to a housing development.


Numbers' games

Tony Blair might have had a bit of a duffing at the hands of Jacques Chirac during the recent EU budget negotiations but, in the House of Commons on Monday, he showed that he'd lost none of his talent when it comes to a bit of nifty footwork.
In order to cobble together a deal on the budget, Mr Blair surrendered £7 billion of the UK's rebate over the next seven years.
Yet he was still able to tell Parliament that our rebate would be increasing year on year and was, therefore, not being cut.
Of course, there are two ways of looking at this but the simple fact is that over the period we will get £7 billion less than we would have done without Mr Blair's concessions, which sounds like a cut to me.
It is not as if Mr Blair doesn't understand the arithmetic because, during the recent election, a very similar argument arose over the spending plans of the two main parties.
In the blue corner, the Conservatives were saying that they would allow public spending to grow at 1% per annum less than Labour.
Coming out of the red corner Labour claimed that this represented a cut in public spending, but the Tories pointed out that, under their plans, public spending would still grow year on year, which couldn't be described as a cut.
Mr Blair can't have it both ways!
The other canard involves the claim that the budget was a good deal for Britain because, while our contribution will go up by 66%, that of Italy and France will increase by 100%.
My advice is, whenever you see a % sign, always ask: percentage of what?
France and Italy pay a good deal less into the EU than we do and 100% of £1 billion is considerably less than 66% of £5 billion.
While I'm on the subject of percentages, I should alert you to another little trick that you should look out for when the council tax is being set.
This concerns the fact that the order in which percentage increases are imposed doesn't appear to make any difference to the final result.
So starting with £100 and increasing by 20% in year one and a further 5% in year two gives a payment of £126 and you get exactly the same result if you reverse the order of the increases.
But, if you look a little closer, you will see that this is misleading because in the first example the payments for the three years are £100, £120 and £126; and in the second £100, £105 and £126.
So, though the final year's payment is £126 in both cases, the total amounts paid over the three-year period are £346 and £331 respectively.
And you never get your 15 quid back, no matter how small the increases in subsequent years.

Shame on you Santa

And all the other reindeer, used to laugh and call him names,
They wouldn't let poor Rudolph join in any games.

Who'd have thought that, of all people, Santa would have allowed this sort of bullying - especially at Christmas time.

And a merry Christmas and a happy and peaceful New Year to you all .

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