7 December 2004



Passing the buck

It seems that Pembrokeshire's council tax payers are facing hefty increases in their bills next year
Over the years, the ruling Independent party's one great boast is that they have maintained a low level of council tax.
Not unnaturally, Labour group members on the council, have claimed that this low council tax is due to the generous Rate Support Grant (RSG) given to the council by their party colleagues in the Welsh Assembly.
The Independent party has consistently denied this.
As proof of the value of my policy of never throwing anything away, no matter how apparently worthless, I have in front of me the speech made by Maurice Hughes (remember him?) at last year's budget setting meeting.
Cllr, as he then was, Hughes told the meeting: "This year the people of Pembrokeshire will have the lowest council tax in Wales. I repeat the message I have given each year. We do not achieve these results by accident. It is done by careful, efficient and effective management of our resources allied to clear political direction [from Maurice Hughes and his crew]."
I have always favoured the Labour group's interpretation of these low levels of council tax not least because it would seem to mesh with what the Director of Finance told the council during the meeting where the council tax rate for 1998/99 was determined.
Mr Lewis told that meeting: "The level of central government support for local authority expenditure in terms of Revenue Support Grant and Non Domestic Rate {business rate] pool income is... fixed by central government. Given these factors the level of contribution required towards local services from local taxpayers [council tax] is set by the Welsh Office [now Welsh Assembly]."
It is no accident, I suspect, that this outburst of candour accompanied a report that informed members that, in order to balance the books in the year ahead, the council tax would have to rise by an inflation-busting 11%.
From what I can gather, this year's council increase is likely to be in the region of 6% (three-times the rate of inflation)
So stand by for the Welsh Assembly to take some flak.
Indeed this blame-shifting process is already underway with the leader Cllr John Davies telling the Mercury back in September, in respect of the rebanding exercise: "While we will not be able to predict exactly what the new council tax charges will be, we have to assume that most of us in this county and throughout Wales will be paying more for services next year."(see Not me guv).
But, as Cllr Davies, himself, told Tuesday's meeting of Cabinet, some 30% of dwellings have been placed in a higher band which means that 70% have gone down or stayed the same.
Which, by the iron laws of arithmetic, means that, all other things being equal, for everyone whose council tax goes up 2.33 people will benefit from a reduction.
Strange use of the word "most" methinks.
Also at Tuesday's meeting of the Cabinet, in what sounded to me suspiciously like a planted question, Cllr Bill Roberts asked the Director of Finance, Mark Lewis, what the effect would be for someone whose property had gone up one band.
Mr Lewis said that, even without any increase in the budget, someone whose property had gone from band D to E would have to pay 22% more.
"22% more!" Cllr Roberts exclaimed, "I find that very alarming."
As someone whose own modest abode has gone up three bands, I find it alarming, too.
However, as I will explain next week, Mr Lewis' answer was, at one and the same time, both true and not true.
So, while those of us who have gone up a band or three will have to pay more, it is not nearly as "alarming" as Cllr Roberts thinks

I see no ships

Last week's meeting of the County Council's Corporate Governance Committee "debated" Cllr Michael Williams' notice of motion which asked that: "Members be told the exact date when the Chief Executive introduced Cllr [Brian] Hall to Dr [Michael] Ryan".
The Director of Support Services' report explaining why this was not possible was a model of brevity.
It said: "There is no record of an exact date. Information about the meeting is, therefore, the subject of recollection which is limited, particularly as it is more than four years ago."
Perhaps Old Grumpy can assist by the application of a little logic to the following known facts.

(1) "The Chief Executive recalls introducing Dr Ryan to Cllr Hall in his office after ORA Ltd had been awarded the contract." (Auditor's report paragraph 27).

(2) ORA Ltd was awarded the contract on 1 August 2000. (Letter from Head of Marketing and Communication, David Thomas, to ORA Ltd's managing director, Dr Michael Ryan).

(3) Dr Ryan present in Pembrokeshire between 15-18 August 2000 and 4-7 October 2000 (answers provided at the last Council meeting in response to my questions.

4) Cllr Hall sent a private letter dated 20 September 2000 to the Leader (Maurice Hughes) informing him that he was going into business with Dr Ryan (Auditors report paragraph 28).

(5) Dr Ryan faxed Cllr Hall on 16 October 2000 outlining the pair's well-advanced plans to trade in Pembrokeshire (see Hall-Ryan the full story).

Therefore, on the face of it, the initial meeting must have taken place sometime between 1 August and 20 September 2000.

As that initial introduction took place in the Chief Executive's office, Dr Ryan must, presumably, have been in Pembrokeshire at the time.

Therefore, as the 15-18 August was only time Dr Ryan was in Pembrokeshire between the relevant dates, Dr Ryan was introduced to Cllr Hall sometime between 15-18 August.

Even if we discount Cllr Hall's letter to the Leader as a fake; got up after the event in an attempt to give the impression that Hall had been open and above board, we can still conclude that the original meeting between Hall and Ryan took place in mid-August 2000.

That is because, whatever the provenance of Cllr Hall's leter to the Leader, Hall and Ryan must have known each other by the time Dr Ryan sent Cllr Hall the fax on 16 October 2000 (See Ryan-Hall). That, of course, opens up the possibility that the two of them first met between 4-7 October; the only other time when Dr Ryan was in Pembrokeshire during the (revised) relevant period.
However, that can be ruled out because it is wholly inconsistent with the contents of Dr Ryan's 16 October fax to Hall which begins "I have at last completed my first draft of the Business Plan, which I want you to review."

The fax goes on to discuss their plans to pull off a big deal involving the Purcell Bros (owners of the Cleddau Bridge Hotel) and a scheme to take over the PBI.
Furthermore, the business plan reveals, under the heading "Marketing", 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."
I would suggest that it was impossible to achieve this amount of progress in the 9-12 days between 4-7 October and 16 October 2000 especially as, for most of the time Dr Ryan was in Ireland and Hall was in Pembroke Dock.
Come to think of it, they weren't hanging about to have got as far as they had in the eight weeks between 17 August and 16 October,.
What is difficult to understand is why the Council and the District Auditor were both content to leave these matters wreathed in clouds of uncertainty when they had full access to all the facts.
After all, its hardly rocket science, is it?
Several other intrigueing questions arise from this affair, such as what was Cllr Hall, who was Chairman of Highways at the time, doing in the Chief Executive's office during a meeting with an economic development consultant.
And, after Cllr Hall told the Chief Executive in "early Autumn 2000" that he was going into business with Dr Ryan, why wasn't the Monitoring Officer; the person charged with responsibility for matters involving potential conflicts of interest, kept informed.
The answers to these and many other unresolved questions will have to wait for my book which should, hopefully, be ready for the publishers by late spring, or is it early summer, I'm not telling.

One-way judgement

My own Notice of Motion called for the publication of Director of Finance's statement to the police in respect of Cllr Brian Hall's claim for travelling expenses on 1 February 2001 (for full details see The Time Lord).
As expected the Independent Party used its 8-4 majority to vote down my proposal and, no doubt, it will deploy its 38-22 majority to get its own way when the matter is discussed at full council on 16 December.
Unfortunately, I have only a second hand account, in the form of telephone conversations with, and a letter from, the police about what was contained in the Director of Finance, Mark Lewis', statement.
During my telephone conversations, I was told that Mr Lewis had said that Cllr Hall had permission to travel from Magor to Penllergaer, via Haverfordwest and Pembroke Dock, in order to put an "Irish inward investor" on the ferry.
I wonder if this was the same inward investor who helped him put away £52-worth of Chinese nosh in London the previous evening.
In their letter the police say: "I refer to our recent discussions concerning issues you raised with regards to Councillor Brian Hall. I can now confirm that we have received a formal statement from a senior member of Pembrokeshire County Council. The statement states that in their opinion, no criminal act has been committed and that they are the injured party in this case. Having reviewed the circumstances I can confirm that the Police should not take any further action in this matter unless there is further significant evidence available.
I have asked Mr Lewis [Director of Finance] whether he would consent to releasing a copy of the statement provided to yourself. However, at this stage that consent has not been provided."
Defending the Corporate Governance committees decision to reject my Notice of Motion the Leader, Cllr John Davies, told the Mercury: "The committee cannot act as judge, jury and executioner."
Being against capital punishment, I don't want to see anyone executed, but it is difficult to see what is the purpose of this committee if not to consider the evidence put before it and come to a decision (judgement?).It is not that the council has been slow to come to judgement on this issue in the past
On 4 December 2001, soon after I revealed what I had discovered about Cllr Hall's high-speed dash from Magor to Pembroke Dock (125 miles in 52 mins if his expense claim is to be believed) the council put out a press statement in which it said: "The evidence available to the Pembrokeshire County Council clearly indicates that no statutory infringement took place and therefore there are no grounds for complaint."
And, in response to questions from Labour Leader Joyce Watson at a meeting of the Council on 13 December 2001 (reported in the following week’s Western Telegraph under the headline "Answers demanded in expense storm", the Chairman of Council, Cllr Rosemary Hayes JP, read out a statement; prepared for her by a senior council officer, in which she asserted: "The facts are that Councillor Hall undertook approved duties and can establish that he actually made the journeys for which he claimed allowances."
The following day, in a letter to Cllr Tom Sinclair, the Monitoring Officer wrote:
"… the police have investigated the matter about travelling allowances claimed by Councillor Brian Hall and have found no evidential basis on which to consider further action.
The facts are that Councillor Hall undertook approved duties and can establish that he actually made the journeys for which he claimed allowances. From the facts available to me, I agree with the conclusion reached by the police."
As far as I am concerned, these three statements were all attempts by the council to conceal the truth and I am keen to discover to what extent, if any, the Director of Finance was involved in this project.
Hence my Notice of Motion.
Perhaps what the Leader meant was that the council is not prepared to act as judge and jury when the evidence points conclusively to some conclusion that doesn't fit with whatever storyline it is currently peddling.
I also notice that the Leader is quoted as saying: "I continue to believe that local government must exercise honesty, transparency and accountability, but certainly not at the expense of fairness."
So, in the interests of fairness, I have sent him an email promising never to mention Cllr Hall's expense claims ever again if he can, in the interests of honesty, transparency and accountability, provide me with a rational explanation for how Cllr Hall managed to eat lunch and drive the 125 miles from Magor to Pembroke Dock (via Haverfordwest) in 52 minutes.
I threw down the same challenge to his predecessor back in October 2003, after he accused me of making false allegations to the police.
No reply was forthcoming, and I am not expecting a markedly different outcome this time around.


A couple of week's ago Dennis MacShane the Minister for Europe told the "Any Questions" audience what a wonderful thing it was that Xavier Solano, the EU's foreign policy spokesman, was in charge of talks aimed at finding a solution to the disputed election in Ukraine.
How much better, Mr MacShane opined, than having 25 separate European governments sticking their oar in.
That may be true when all the European governments agree, as in the Ukraine case, but that is not always the case, unfortunately.
For instance, would Mr MacShane's boss, Tony Blair, have been happy if a pan-European view, shaped by France and Germany, had removed from his hands the decision on whether to support Mr Bush's war in Iraq.
With the benefit of hindsight, maybe.
But the point is that it is better, surely, that our foreign policy is determined by our own government; accountable to the people through the ballot box, rather than an unelected Brussels bureaucrat.
To subcontract these decisions to the European Commission would be, to my mind, an unacceptable loss of sovereignty.
Mr MacShane was in the news again when The Scotsman quoted him as rubbishing Gordon Brown's five economic tests for the Euro, in a speech to students at Durham University.
According to The Scotsman, Mr MacShane told his audience: "On the Euro and other things we've waited for the economics to be right on that - although that was always a bit of a giant red herring."
When challenged by the newspaper Mr MacShane said "red herring" was a phrase he never used, but when told they had a tape recording he fell back on that time-worn excuse that he had been quoted out of context.
Then, on Sunday, we had the spectacle of John Reid on television insisting that, as there was an inquiry underway into the allegations that David Blunkett has abused his position to fast-track a visa application for his ex-girlfriends nanny, we shouldn't prejudge the issue.
Yet, it is only a week ago that Mr Blair, who will be the final arbiter of Mr Blunkett's fate, was telling us that he was certain that this same inquiry would completely exonerate the Home Secretary.
And they wonder why people are cynical about politics and politicians!

Daily Telegraph story of the week

Seating row halts carol service

Angry councillors have cancelled their carol service because a vicar refused to reserve the best seats in the church for them.
Fenland district council in Cambridgeshire had expected, as usual, to have pews reserved at the front of St Peter's and St Paul's Church in Chatteris for the Dec 12 service. But the recently ordained Rev James Thomson would not reserve seats because he believes everyone is equal in the sight of God.
The service will now be held in the town of March, where the vicar is more obliging about the Tory-run council's seating plans.

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