10 February 2004


Lifting the veil


Last week's Mercury gave a fascinating insight into the reality behind the Independent Political (sic) Group's non-political facade.
According to two former, unnamed members of the party, Cllr Maurice Hughes is telling the truth when he says that the votes of Pembrokeshire Independent Group members are not whipped.
Those of us who watch events from the public gallery had always assumed that the simultaneous raising of hands in favour of whatever the officers were recommending must be the result of some formal system.
Indeed, one of my former colleagues at the Mercury observed that if ever synchronised voting became an Olympic event the Independents would bring home a barrowful of gold medals.
However, it seems we were all wrong.
The two ex-independents both confirm there is nothing so sophisticated as a whip.
Instead the two moles speak of "strong-arm tactics" and "heavy hitters" being used to bring potential rebels into line during the party's secret pre-meeting meetings.
This chimes with remarks made by Cllr Norman "Brock" Parry when he left the Independent Group to briefly become an independent independent.
At that time Cllr Parry told the Mercury that he had been forced out of the "party" by "bully boy tactics" though he was soon lured back when offered the chairmanship of the Cultural Services Committee.
Even more insidious is the claim by one of the Mercury's moles that objections to official (officer) policy are reported back to the Chief Officers Management Board (COMB) so that the highly-paid pointy-heads can devise counter-arguments in time for the meeting.
Stalin would have been at home such a set-up.
That is, perhaps, why the Mercury was at pains not to name its sources.
However, to the best of my recollection, only two members have left the Pembrokeshire Independent Group, Cllrs Emyr Jones and Anthony Wilcox, so it can safely be assumed that even the Independents will have worked out the identities of the Mercury's informants by now.
Interestingly, though Cllr Wilcox left to join Labour last October, I notice that he is still listed as an Independent on the County Council's website.
Really, what is the point of having these expensive websites if nobody can be bothered to keep them up to date?
While on that subject, I would again (see Tangled web) draw attention to the fact that the travelling expenses scheme on page 108 of the council's constitution, as published on www.pembrokeshire.gov.uk, was declared illegal by the Welsh Assembly as long ago as July 2002.
Is it laziness, incompetence or merely contempt for the electorate that results in this administrative sloppiness?
In early January, another council website mentioned in this column (www.choosepembrokeshire.org.uk) was taken down for "reconstruction" after I pointed out certain errors and anomalies (see Mickey Mouse ...).
It is to be hoped that the rebuilding is cheaper than the original, the design and promotion of which cost some £70,000

Freebie culture


Monday's meeting of the county council Cabinet considered a notice of motion from Labour leader, Cllr Joyce Watson.
Cllr Watson had asked that councillors who attend conferences and seminars (at public expense) should, on their return, present a report to council.
I had thought that such notices of motion were supposed to be dealt with by the Corporate Governance Committee but, as both that committee and the Cabinet are dominated by Maurice Hughes' place men, I don't suppose it makes much difference.
Predictably, the Cabinet refused to endorse Cllr Watson's Notice of Motion, possibly because some of them were terrified by the prospect of having to stand up in front of the council and speak coherently for ten minutes, but more likely because to have accepted it would be tantamount to admitting that someone might know something that they didn't.
However, the Cabinet did vote through an amendment proposed by Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse
What will now happen is that, on their return, the conference junkies will "... make themselves available to provide information ... to any other member who seeks it from them."
This revised scheme of things has two drawbacks.
Firstly, it makes no mention of poor old Joe (and Josephine) Public who pays the hotel bills.
Doesn't it occur to Squirehouse and co that we might like to know what our elected representatives get up to while spending our money in England's most exotic seaside resorts?
Secondly, as it is never announced in advance that one of the nomenclatura is heading off up the M4 on one of these jaunts, how are the poor bloody infantry (bog-standard members) to know who to ask, about what.
So that you, the funding body, can make up your own minds I will give a brief outline of the activities of one of the county's finest boondogglers, Cllr Bill "Freebie" Hitchings.
For the past 14 years, that I know of, Cllr Bill - together with his wife - has been attending the summer conference of the Association of Port Health Authorities.
This all stems from his time as Chairman of Milford PHA in the early 90s.
When he relinquished the chair (Buggin's turn) it was decided that "Boondoggle Bill" would continue to attend the annual shindig because it would enhance his chances of becoming chairman of the UK Association of Port Health Authorities.
When Pembrokeshire County Council was set up in 1996, Cllr Bill ceased to have anything to do with port health matters.
But that didn't stop his annual migration to the seaside.
Indeed, he went on double rations because he became Chairman of social services in which capacity he attended the national conference in Blackpool.
I remember this well because during one of my annual trawls through the council's accounts I came across an invoice for his and Peggy's conference dinner (£60).
Not only did it seem obscene that the two of them should be stuffing their mouths out of the budget that is supposed to look after the poor and vulnerable, but in Cllr Hitchings' wife's case it was unauthorised expenditure.
A letter to the auditor ensured that he had to fork out £30.00 reimbursement.
Please email me if you can think of the benefits that the people of Pembrokeshire get from any of this.
Not that I'm altogether in favour of Cllr Watson's motion.
One conference that Cllr Bill attended on behalf of MHPA (in Dover I think) was on the sanitary arrangements on long distance coaches and another (venue unknown) dealt with the highly relevant matter of aircraft catering.
Would anybody really want to sit through a ten minute presentation on either of these fascinating topics?
I suppose, in the old days, when councillors donated their services virtually free, there was something to be said for giving them the odd freebie as reward.
But Hitchings and his Cabinet chums are paid £23,000 a year.
More than enough to pay for their own holidays, don't you think

Unreliable evidence

Monday's Daily Telegraph carried a graphic report of a rare February sighting of a swallow in Somerset.
"Ornithologists and environmentalists believe it is further evidence of inexorable climate change" the Telegraph gravely intones.
The rest of the story rather blows this doomsday scenario out of the water by informing us that "swallows have occasionally appeared in January but in the last two years none has arrived before March."
And we are told, the previous record for the south west was a sighting on Feb 13 at Lynmouth Devon in, er, 1897.
It just goes to show that one swallow does not a summer make, nor a scientific hypothesis, indeed.
I suppose it is too much to ask that these peddlers of doom apply just teeny bit of scepticism to these grand theories.
How do they suppose that these swallows flying round north Africa knew that last week was particularly warm in the UK?
Listening to the weather forecasts on the radio, perhaps.
And, in any case, when these swallows set off from north Africa, about a fortnight ago, Britain was in the grip of the biggest freeze of the winter.
My understanding is that swallows, and other migratory birds, base the timing of their journeys on day length.
No doubt, there are some among the millions of swallows that make the journey each year whose migratory trigger is defective; causing them to turn up here in the middle of winter.
Natural selection and the survival of the fittest ensure that any inherited tendency to such aberrant behaviour remains the exception rather than the rule.
In any case, why use unreliable indicators like migrating birds and butterflies to measure global warming when we have thermometers?
What thermometers show is that the mean global surface temperature increased by 0.6 degrees C during the last century.
This is roughly the equivalent to moving from Shrewsbury to Cardiff.
The global warming which so exercises environmentalists is that projected for the next 100 years, based on computer models which even their progenitors admit contain huge uncertainties.
Anyone who wants to understand the truth about this subject should try to get hold of a copy of Bjorn Lomborg's "The Skeptical Environmentalist" in which the author demolishes most if not all of the doomsayers' case for massive and immediate cuts in Carbon Dioxide emissions.
Lomborg, a Danish professor of statistics, became interested in the subject after reading an article casting doubt on global warming theory by the American economist Julian Simon
Lomborg, who was then, in his own words, "an old left-wing Greenpeace member", set out to show Simon was wrong.
But the more he considered the facts the more he came to the view that it was his own facile opinions that were mistaken.
Hence the book.
Lomborg tells the delicious story of how Simon was prepared to back his theories with hard cash.
This was back in the early 80s when the doomsayers were predicting that the world was about to run out of oil, and anything else you could mention.
This coming scarcity would, on the basis of economic theory, lead to price rises.
Simon offered to bet $10,000 that the inflation-adjusted price of commodities would fall over the coming years.
To make it easier for his opponents he allowed them to specify the particular commodity and the timescale.
Several prominent environmentalists took him up, including Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University who is reputed to have told his friends that "the lure of easy money can be irresistible."
The pessimists chose a ten-year time frame for the prices of chromium, nickel, tin, tungsten and copper.
At the end of the ten years the price of all five had fallen - tin by 70% - and Simon cleaned up.
As Lomborg says, Ehrlich an Co would have lost no matter whether they had staked their money on petroleum, foodstuffs, sugar, coffee, cotton, wool, minerals or phosphates, all of which had dropped in price in the ten year period.


Billy Smart

A mole tells Old Grumpy that controversy is brewing in Pembroke Dock over Cllr Brian Hall's plans to bring a circus to the town.
For myself, I think it is a good thing that Cabinet meetings should be held away from County Hall.

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