25 February 2003

 

Power games

"A Blue Day for Democracy" ran the headline in last week's Western Telegraph over a report that the controversy over the colour of the estate agent's office in Victoria Place, Haverfordwest would be settled by unelected council officers rather than the planning committee.
As it happens it is almost exactly one year (28 February 2002) since the County Council approved the constitutional arrangements; transferring to the officers almost unfettered powers to determine planning applications.(see Clipped wings).
In truth, this so-called constitution is a Stalinist document designed to concentrate power in the hands of the Chief Officers Management Board (COMB) and the small clique of Independent Group members who make up the Cabinet.
For instance, appointments of senior officers' and matters affecting their salaries are now determined by a Senior Staff Committee with plenary [absolute] powers, comprising six members, four of whom are appointed from the Independent Political (sic) Group by the Leader.
Otherwise, "the management of all staff and the determination of all employment matters" are the responsibility of the Chief Executive.
This change did arouse some press comment (but not much) because it removed employees' right of appeal to a panel of elected members if they felt they had been unfairly treated.
And it would appear that the power to modify the constitution (see Constitutional monstrosity) has been hived off to the twelve-member Corporate Governance Committee consisting of the Leader (in the Chair) and three of his cabinet cronies, plus the chairmen of the four Scrutiny Committees (all Independent Group, stooges hand-picked by the Cabinet) and four members of the minority parties.
By the way, just to show how flawed the system is, these Scrutiny Committee Chairmen cum guardians of the constitution include one Alwyn "ex-Monster Muncher" Luke, the serial expense fiddler who represents Scleddau.
This committee, with its inbuilt majority of the Leader's place-men, has plenary powers to reject changes to the constitution proposed by members without reference to the Council as a whole.
As one of the main purposes of a constitution is to define the boundaries for the exercise of Executive power, this arrangement is nothing less than an outrage against the principles of democracy.
And it would seem, from the evidence of the Clive Collins affair (see Unseated), that the Leader has total, some would say totalitarian, control over which members of his Independent Group sit on the Scrutiny Committees, the purpose of which is to um, er, scrutinise the activities of the Leader's Cabinet.

 

Strange bedfellows

When the Daily Mail and a Labour Home Secretary find themselves in total agreement we should all count our spoons.
But, that's what happened last week when Britain's most right wing newspaper teamed up with David Blunkett to give Mr Justice Collins a good shoeing.
The Judge's "crime" was to find that depriving asylum seekers of the right to benefits, on the grounds that they had failed to claim asylum immediately on entering the country, infringed their human rights.
According to Mr Blunkett, Justice Collins, and other like minded members of the bench, who override the will of Parliament, are "a threat to democracy".
But not as much of a threat as Mr Blunkett, I would venture.
Lord Lester, the Liberal Democrat peer and leading civil rights lawyer, summed it up perfectly when he described Mr Blunkett's outburst as reminiscent of Zimbabwe, where Mugabe-appointed judges do the government's bidding, leading to what is known as the breakdown of the Rule of Law.
After all, what Collins J. said was that leaving someone facing destitution because they are neither entitled to benefits or the right to support themselves by working, amounts to "cruel and unusual treatment" within the meaning of the Human Rights Act.
You don't have to be a raving civil rights activist to concede that he may have a point.
In any case, it should be remembered that it was New Labour that introduced the very legislation that is now causing Mr Blunkett such grief.
And, if Mr Blunkett thinks the Judge got it wrong, he can always refer the case to the Court of Appeal and, ultimately, the House of Lords.

Half-truths

Regular readers will know that Old Grumpy has been trying for months to squeeze the truth about the apparent conflict of interest in the business relationship between Cabinet Member Cllr Brian Hall and the authority's £450-a-day economic development consultant, Dr Michael Ryan, out of His Leadership, Cllr Maurice Hughes.
My curiosity stems from a press release put out by Cllr Hughes after I revealed that Dr Ryan and Cllr Hall were the sole shareholders and directors of a company Euro-Ryall Ltd, formed in December 2000 just a few months after Dr Ryan's engagement by the council.
County Council press releases, particularly those designed to conceal the truth, follow a standard pattern, which involves burying the real issue under a mass of irrelevant verbiage.
In the case in point, more than 90% of the two-page document was devoted to an account of Dr Ryan's credentials, which, so far as I know, had never been questioned, while one short paragraph was given over to the issue of the potential conflict of interest.
That paragraph reads: "The Council is fully aware of the company Euroryall [though not how to spell its name]. Before the company was registered the principals [Cllr Hall and Dr Ryan] approached officers of the council. They gave firm undertakings that the company would not trade in Pembrokeshire nor provide any conflict of interest. I understand that although the company has been set up it has never traded."
The contrast between the general vagueness of this paragraph and the minute detail of the rest of the press release caused me to smell a rat, so I wrote to Cllr Hughes asking for the names of the officers involved; the date of the meeting; and the nature of the "firm undertakings"."
Eventually, he replied saying that his press release was "comprehensive" and that he "had nothing further to add".
I have emailed him a further four times but, obviously, he has been too busy to reply.
So, I took the matter up with the Monitoring Officer, Mr Huw James.
I have now received a letter from Mr James, which goes some way to explaining why His Leadership is so reluctant to answer my questions.
Mr James writes: "It is Dr Ryan who has entered into a consultancy arrangement with the Council. In that capacity he gave a written undertaking that a company in which he was involved would not trade in Pembrokeshire. It is that undertaking which … is contractually enforceable".
So the references to "they" and "firm undertakings" in Cllr Hughes press release are half-truths (literally), as it would appear that no such undertaking has been given by Cllr Hall.
And in any case, if this "firm undertaking" was intended to prevent Euro-Ryall Ltd from trading in Pembrokeshire then the contract should have been with the company not one of its directors acting in a personal capacity.
As it stands, once Dr Ryan's contract with the council comes to an end there is absolutely nothing to prevent Euro-Ryall Ltd trading in Pembrokeshire on the strength of information and contacts gained during his employment with the council.
And even if the contract was with Euro-Ryall Ltd there would be no point in the Council suing unless it could show that the company's trading activities had caused it some loss - no damage, no damages.
It is hard to believe that a public body, with a budget of £130 million, and an army of highly paid lawyers, could enter into an arrangement resembling something dreamt up by Del Boy or Arthur Daley.
And why wasn't this "contractually enforceable", "written undertaking", provided to me when I asked for a copy of Dr Ryan's agreement with the council during last October's public audit inspection?
I have written to Mr James asking that this last omission be rectified.
This story, which is beginning to attract the attention of the wider media, has some way to run.
I will keep you posted.

Money bags

Old Grumpy's attention has been drawn to the News of the World headline "Ewe are Greedy Burghers" featuring our esteemed Chief Executive, Bryn Parry Jones.
The "Ewe" is a reference to the paper's claim that Mr Parry-Jones rules over a County where sheep outnumber people by three to one.
Old Grumpy has made several attempts to verify the number of sheep but I have not yet to get past 750 without falling asleep.
There amidst the great debate about whether Justin had slept with Kylie, or her sister, or both, was an article about Mr Parry Jones's massive £110,000 a year salary, which, according to the newspaper, has risen by 22% in the last two years while the cleaners and bin-men employed by the council have had to get by on 3.5% a year.
And what the NoW failed to mention is that Mr Parry-Jones trousers another 12% (£13,000) on top of his salary to lease a car.
Oh, and I nearly forgot, we also pay 9% of his salary (£9,900) into his pension fund.
And, while the NoW might well be right about the 22% increase in Mr Parry-Jones's salary over the past two years, I should point out that when he was first engaged in 1995 his pay was set at £63,000 a year.
If my arithmetic is right, that means a 75% increase in a little under eight years, or a 50% increase in real terms, given that, during this period, annual inflation has been less than 3%.
My policy of never throwing anything away has again paid dividends because while looking through my voluminous file on the Chief Executive's various pay rises I came across a May 1998 press release on the subject from the then Leader Eric Harries.
According to ex-Cllr Harries, "the recent debate through the newspapers [Old Grumpy in the Mercury] has taken an unhealthy, unfair and often inaccurate turn."
And: "Those responsible have stretched the meaning of 'public interest' by appealing for an emotive public response and swayed what should have been a rational and sensible debate into something which only serves personal and political ends for a few."
Unfortunately, we had to take Cllr Harries' word for the bit about "rational and sensible debate" because, I notice from the minutes that, following its long-held tradition of secrecy, the Independent Political (sic) Group retreated behind closed doors when the issue was discussed.
The press release concludes: "In the end his [Chief Executive's] capabilities and performance will not be judged by shareholders, but by a far more demanding audience - the people of Pembrokeshire."
As the electors lacked the opportunity to pass judgment on the Chief Executive through the ballot box, they had to make do with his political masters.
Alas, for poor Eric, the verdict was not favourable - the following May the voters of Hubberston gave him the boot.

 

Called to account

A rather chippy letter has just arrived from the Secretary of the Milford Haven Maritime Museum Trust claiming that my article on Foot and Mouth hardship payments (Poor relief. 4th February) is "misleading".
According to the Trust, I based my figures on a comparison of takings between the financial years 2001-2002 rather than, what they claim to be the correct comparison, between 2000-2001.
"We hope you can find space on your website to correct your inaccurate article", the letter concludes.
Well, I would be delighted to do so, except my figures are drawn from an impeccable source - the Museum's audited accounts.
It seems that the denizens of the Museum are confusing financial and calendar years - too much time spent among those dusty old artefacts, I would guess.
The audited accounts show turnover for the financial year 2000/01 (ending on March 31 2001) at £4,716.
For the following year, 2001/02 (ending on March 31 2002) proceeds were £4,692.
The foot and mouth outbreak started in February 2001, but, as the Museum doesn't open its doors until April, that couldn't have had any effect on takings for the year up to 31 March 2001.
The outbreak raged throughout the summer and autumn of 2001 i.e.during the financial year 1 April 2001 to 31 March 2002.
As the takings were a mere £24 down during the foot-and-mouth-affected year, compared to the previous foot-and-mouth-free year, it is difficult to understand what justification there is for the payment of £738 out of the Foot and Mouth Hardship Fund to the Museum in January 2002.
That was exactly what I said on February 4 and now the trustees have reopened the matter, I shall be writing to them seeking an explanation.

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