18 February 2003

Sauce for the goose...

On October 18 last year, during my annual trawl through the County Council's accounts, I requested information on payments received [receipts] from Cllr Brian Hall who leases one of the authority's industrial units at 75 Stockwell Road Pembroke Dock (see Right denied)
It is my view that I am entitled to see this information by virtue of Section 15 of the Audit Commission Act 1998 which provides that:15. - (1) At each audit under this Act, other than an audit of accounts of a health service body, any persons interested may-
(a) inspect the accounts to be audited and all books, deeds, contracts, bills, vouchers and receipts relating to them, and
(b) make copies of all or any part of the accounts and those other documents.

However the Council replied: "Disclosure of Personal Data not permissible (Data Protection Act 1998).
On turning up the Data Protection Act 1998 on the Internet I was interested to read at Section 35 that "(1) Personal data are exempt from the non-disclosure provisions where the disclosure is required by or under any enactment , by any rule of law or by the order of a court." e.g Section 15 Audit Commission Act 1998.
On 5 November 2002 I wrote to the Director of Finance, Mr Mark Lewis, expressing my view that Section 35 of the DPA meant that I was entitled to have the information requested.
Not having received a reply within the 15 working days that the council's performance indicators allow, I wrote to the Monitoring Officer, Mr Huw James, on 28 November, complaining that, by refusing to comply with my request for this information, the Finance Department was acting unlawfully
He replied on 14 December saying that the Director of Finance had asked him to "do some further research" into the issues I had raised "with particular reference to data protection and audit commission legislation",
"I have not concluded my research yet but will let you know as soon as I do", he concluded.
Five weeks went by with no word from the Monitoring Officer so on 20 January this year I sent him a reminder.
On 24 January I received a short note from Mr James: "I shall write to you as soon as we have reached a conclusion on this issue. I anticipate being in a position to do so shortly."
And on 11 February another, in which he informs me "I had hoped to conclude this issue this week but I am still awaiting a response to one particular line of enquiry."
To think it is only five weeks ago that His Leadership Maurice Hughes had the cheek to write to Mr John Hudson complaining of the cost of answering his questions (see Uppity servants and No Answer).

...but not for the gander

However, it seems, the attitude is rather different when the boot is on the other foot.
On the morning of October 20 1998, I received a call from Cllr Brian Hall.
He had some interesting information about the winding up of a company, Bridges Ltd, of which David Edwards, the then Labour Leader on the council, was a director.
According to Cllr Hall, the company had been wound up by Customs and Excise over the non-payment of £5,900 in VAT.
He also told me that Bridges Ltd owed the county council £1,300 in rent for a unit it leased at Llanion.
Cllr Hall was even able to provide me with details of where Mr Edwards had used the company's credit card - at a garage near Blackpool on his way back from the Labour Party Conference, for instance.
Naturally, I couldn't print this story without corroboration so I rang the court in Leeds where the winding-up proceedings had taken place.
They confirmed that the company had been put into receivership, but refused to give any further details.
My next port of call was the receivers in Swansea who informed me that they could only give out information to those owed money by the company, which, of course, included Pembrokeshire County Council.
So, that same afternoon, I rang Cllr Hall and the following conversation ensued.

O G: Hello Brian this is Mike.

B H: Hello Mike.

O G: I'm not getting anywhere with this story.

B H: Did you get hold of Dave Thomas [Pembrokeshire County Council's Head of Marketing and Communications]?

O G: No I haven't been hold of him.

B H: Is he there?

O G: I'm trying to get to the story some other way.

B H: I think you'll find Dave will tell you because they must have had that figure as a debtor (sic).

O G: Yes, well, but I'd rather get [the story some other way] you know? I've tried the court but they just told me they couldn't speak to me.

Brian Hall then repeated that the amount of VAT owed by Mr Edwards' company was £5,900.

B H: I can assure you that is the figure and I would have thought Dave Thomas would tell you.

O G: Well as I say…

B H: Would it be out of order if I tell him to phone you or would it be better for you to phone him?

O G : It's better for me to phone him, actually.

B H: Why don't you get hold of him?

O G: Well, as I say, I always prefer to get these stories from an official source.

B H: This is official, isn't it?

O G: Well, semi-official, anyway!

B H: Look! I'm not being funny, do you want me to phone Dave Thomas and tell him to phone you?

O G: No. It'll be much better if I phone him.

We then discussed how much information Cllr Hall had given the Western Telegraph about the story.

B H: I still suggest you speak to Dave Thomas

O G: There we are.

B H: I'll come back to you.

As it turned out there was no need to take Cllr Hall's advice to ring David Thomas because the story was in the Western Telegraph the following day together with a quote from Cllr Hall that people in public office should be "whiter than white".
Checking the back numbers of the Mercury, I notice that in my version of the story includes the phrase "Cllr Brian Hall who broke the story" followed by a quote from the great man that "people who hold public office should be squeaky clean".
How true!!

On the carpet

Old Grumpy was particularly interested to hear Labour Leader Joyce Watson tell Pembrokeshire Radio that she felt "intimidated" during her meeting with Chief Executive Bryn Parry-Jones to discuss the matter of the spin-doctor and the chauffeur.
Six people were present at this meeting: The Chief Executive; Leader of the Independent Political Group, Maurice Hughes; Monitoring Officer, Huw James; Cllr Watson; and the leaders of the other two parties: Michael Williams (Plaid Cymru) and John Allen (Lib Dem).
From what I can gather from the Mercury and the grapevine, Cllr Watson was on the receiving end of a fifteen-minute tirade by the Chief Executive over the Labour Party's leaking of the story to the press.
It seems that democracy, Pembrokeshire-style, doesn't allow the opposition to ask awkward questions or make trouble for the ruling clique.


Tony's gamble.


An estimated 1 million protesters march through London on an anti-war demo and their leaders call for Mr Blair to change course over Iraq in the name of democracy.
By the same token, these protesters should also be calling for the Government to drop the proposal to ban hunting because of the massive number of people who joined last year's Countryside march.
They aren't, of course, because most of them know in their heart of hearts that this conflation of public opinion and democracy stands on shaky constitutional foundations.
Naturally, politicians who want to be re-elected have to take note of public opinion but there are times when they need to do what they feel is right, come what may.
And it would seem that Mr Blair has decided that Iraq is where he draws the line between leadership and followership.
Paradoxically, Saturday's massive turn-out makes it more likely, not less, that Blair will follow Bush on the road to Baghdad because he has nowhere else to go.
For a variety of reasons: the plagiarised dossier; anti-Americanism; contempt for George W Bush; mistrust of the Government's spin machine; Hans Blix's failure to find a smoking gun; genuine pacifism: and France's refusal to back a second UN resolution among them, Mr Blair must by now have realised that the prospects of turning the tide of public opinion in a warlike direction are on the scale zero to zilch.
After all his public pronouncements, on the subject of disarming/removing Saddam, it is unthinkable that he will suddenly come over all dovish just because a million peaceniks parade their consciences and banners on the streets of the capital.
In any case, if he genuinely believes there is a significant risk of a future Al Qa'eda - Saddam Hussein link-up, he has an overriding duty to protect UK citizens from that threat.
And if he and George Bush really think that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, which are being concealed from Hans Blix and his merry men, what better way to prove it than to invade.
By midsummer Mr Blair could have the world at his feet with Saddam Hussein and his henchmen making an unscheduled appearance before the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, while British and American troops parade vast stocks of captured chemical and biological weapons before appreciative reporters, and crowds of smiling, waving Iraqis are seen on our TV screens enthusiastically welcoming their liberators.
On the other hand ....

Riding two horses

There is a vigorous ongoing debate on the role of the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine.
The problem is that Lord Irvine straddles all three arms of government as Head of the Judiciary, Cabinet Member and Speaker of the House of Lords.
This offends against the Doctrine of Separation of Powers which jurists from Aristotle onwards have agreed is the bedrock of a free society under the rule of law.
When people speak of the breakdown of the rule of law in Zimbabwe they are referring mainly to the fact that Mugabe has packed the judiciary with his own henceman; making it difficult, if not impossible, to hold his government to account through the courts.
Nearer home we have the disgraceful situation in the planning system where elected politicians both make the law (their proper function) and adjudicate upon it (properly the function of an independent tribunal).
This leads to a situation where planning consents are granted on the basis of who you know rather than in accordance with the provisions of the Development Plan (the law).
A classic example of this pernicious practice comes before the National Park tomorrow (Wednesday) when the planning Committee consider a request for an agricultural occupancy condition to be lifted on a property at Castlemorris.
Against the advice of National Park Planning Officers, an agricultural planning consent was granted on the 1.5 acre site in 1995.
According to the report before Wednesday's meeting,"the holding has never been (my emphasis) and never will be a viable proposition for agricultural purposes, due to its size and location."
In other words, the bungalow farmers who voted it through in 1995 were acting against the law.
And, here's the rub: recent case law has established that these improperly imposed conditions cannot be enforced.
So, we have the ludicrous situation where an applicant, who was given consent because the planning committee unlawfully classed the application as agricultural, is in a much better position than someone whose application was genuine..
In the first instance the condition will be automatically removed, while in the second it will only be lifted if the owner can demonstrate that he has tried and failed to sell the property at a price discounted to reflect the encumbrance of the agricultural occupancy condition.

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