February 28 2006

 

email: oldgrumpy.mike@virgin.net

Dairy of a proper Charlie

Over the years Old Grumpy has got used to finding the customary plain brown envelope on the doormat.
Sometimes they contain information that is of great interest - sometimes they come from obvious cranks.
I am not sure what to make of the following which was in green ink and in a rather spidery hand.
It has been my practice down the years to throw anonymous letters in the bin but I decided to make an exception on this occasion.

I just cannot understand those dreadful Americans with their silly notion that everyone is born equal. Just look where it got that Cheyney fellow when he peppered one of his chums during a quail shoot. The so-called free press was soon on his trail and the next thing we know we have the whole shooting match!!!! (geddit) of presidential statements and press conferences. How much better we do these things on this side of the pond. I remember when I winged a beater during a grouse shoot at Balmoral and my faithful ghillie MacTavish immediately stepped forward and took the blame. When I visited him in Barlinnie [prison] he expressed his gratitude that I had allowed him to lay down his freedom for a future king. That is what is so satisfying about this job - it allows you to help people to fulfill themselves.

Flew down to London after lunch on Tuesday for a meeting with Jonathon P [Porritt the environmentalist]. Thanks to the Queen's Flight, I was back at Balmoral in time for dinner; a splendid spread of grouse-liver pate, fresh salmon, braised venison and freshly picked wild raspberries smothered with cream from the farm dairy. It occurred to me that everything on the table had been caught, shot or picked within less than five miles of where it was eaten. Not too many food-miles, there!!!!!. At times like this I feel myself at one with my hunter-gatherer forbears.
Must remember to write to Margaret Beckett asking that she mounts a publicity campaign aimed at weaning the people off their addiction to cheap food.
Porritt is very concerned about the new terminal at Heathrow and the amount of greenhouse gases that will result from all those extra flights.
Must write to TB pointing out that this development flies in the face of the promises we made at Kyoto.

Visited Pembrokeshire last week. Wanted to fly down but some little leveller name of Flynn [Paul Flynn Labour MP for Newport] has been asking questions in the Commons!!!! about the cost of my travelling arrangements. The seats in the Roller as as comfortable as can be, but, by the time we reached the Severn Bridge, my bum had gone to sleep. Spent a boring hour shaking hands with some appalling old waxworks from the Independent Political Group, which apparently rules the roost in those parts, before heading back to Highgrove.
Critics say that, because of my privileged upbringing, I am in no position to speak for the downtrodden and dispossessed, but they have no idea of the anguish Mumsy and I suffered when that horrible Mr Blair, no doubt responding to the opinions of some focus group, decided to deprive us of the Royal Yacht, Brittania.

Ah! the pain that comes with the end of Empire!!!!!

 

Party games

Anyone who believes that democracy involves open debate and the free expression of ideas, with the object of arriving at the best outcome for the people, can only be heartened by the first signs of rebellion inside the Independent Political (sic(k)) Group.
After all, isn't it rather disturbing when the 38 supposedly independent members invariably put their hands up in support of whatever proposition the Leadership puts in front of them?
Not even the parliamentary Labour Party - a group of people bound together by a shared ideology - can manage that sort of unanimity.
There are two possible explanations for this synchronised voting phenomena.
Firstly, it could be the case that the intellectual titans that head the IPG are always right about everything.
Or, secondly, they are following the principle "my party right or wrong".
The problem with this second explanation is that members of the IPG claim, somewhat unconvincingly (see The Party), that there is no place for party politics in local government.
I will leave you to work out for yourselves the flaws in the first.
Of course, all this presents a problem for Cllr John Davies who appears to be coming under pressure from that now all too familiar phenomena - player-power.
If Tony Blair was faced with two of his Cabinet openly opposing the party line, he would have little alternative but to give them the boot.
And if a junior minister were to comprehensively rubbish a Cabinet decision, as did assistant cabinet member Cllr Michael Evans at last week's economic development scrutiny committee, they would be swiftly consigned to the back benches.
Mr Blair could justify his actions in the name of party discipline, but the main difficulty confronting Cllr Davies is that it is not easy to impose party discipline while at the same time keeping up the pretence that the IPG is not a political party.
Another problem is that people voted for these independent candidates in the reasonable expectation that they would be um, er, independent.
If it turns out that speaking your mind is a sacking offence, the cat will be well and truly out of the bag.
And finally, if he does remove the rebels it is not easy to see who would replace them.
After all, the IPG benches are hardly awash with talent, though there is an abundance of yes-men (and women) if, as I suspect, that is the only qualification required.

In denial

Last week I had cause to comment on a trio of letters in the Tenby Observer criticising my views on democracy .
Unfortunately, the newspaper declined to publish my reply so I feel compelled to have my two-pennyworth through this column.
One of my attackers, Cllr Brian Coleman, is vice-Chairman of Manorbier Community Council.
He takes particular exception to my referring to him as a politician.
He writes: "Although I serve on Manorbier council, I strongly object to being called a politician because I think there is no place for politics at community level."
Now, nobody likes to be called a politician because, if opinion polls are to be believed, as a breed they are even more distrusted than journalists, lawyers, estate agents and used-car salesmen, but, I'm afraid, those of us who get involved in local government have no choice but to wear this badge of shame with as much dignity as we can muster..
Manorbier Community Council, on which Cllr Coleman serves, has the power to levy taxes on the residents of its area and to make decisions on how that money should be spent.
Like it or not, these are political decisions and it would seem to follow that those making them must be politicians.
Perhaps what Cllr Coleman means is that there is no place for party politics in local government, in which case he ought to have a word with his fellow letter-writer and Chairman of MCC, Cllr Tony Wales, who, if memory serves me right, stood as a Labour candidate at the last county council elections.

Legal tender

I am indebted to the estimable John Hudson of Broadhaven for casting new light on the complex business of county council tenders.
Mr Hudson has unearthed some minutes from 1998 when the county council agreed to adopt a set procedure for the disposal of publicly owned land.
I was aware of the existence of these minutes because they resulted from a joint investigation by myself and the estimable former leader of the Labour Group on the county council, David Edwards into some rather strange goings-on regarding the sale of the former Yorke Street school in Milford Haven .
Following the Yorke Street fiasco the county council drew up a detailed set of rules.
Four methods of disposal were identified: informal sealed bids; contract tender; auction; and private treaty.
As the report to members pointed out, informal sealed bids of the type employed in the sale of the Mine Depot are problematic because of the statutory requirement contained in S123 of the 1972 Local Government Act that, when selling publicly-owned assets, the council must obtain the best consideration that can be reasonably obtained.
As anyone who has bought or sold a house will know, the difficulty arises because of the inevitable time lag between the opening of the tenders [the acceptance of the offer] and the signing of the contract.
What happens if, in the meantime, someone puts in a bid that provides better consideration than the highest bidder?
Whereas, if you are selling your house, you have no obligation to accept a higher offer [gazumping] a local authority, because of the statutory requirement in S123, must at least consider it.
That, of course, raises a further difficulty because the tender process is specifically designed to prevent late bidders, with knowledge of the value of the other tenders, from entering the fray.
So, it would seem that a late entrant who was, as it were, bidding blind, would be perfectly acceptable, but a late entrant who was "in the know" would throw up some serious ethical questions.
Things are further complicated in the present case because the "successful" bidder, Milford Haven Port Authority (MHPA) was actually involved in the tender process under the guise of a shell company Haven Facilities Ltd (HFL).
It is now common knowledge that a consortium of local businessmen sailing under the flag of Cleddau Enterprises Ltd (CEL) was the highest bidder.
Exactly how much higher their bid was than that of HFL/MHPA, I am not free to say.
So, what prompted HFL/MHPA to conclude that the site was worth considerably more than their original tender price?
And was it pure luck that led them to settle on a figure that just shaded CEL's bid?
These and other questions I hope to be able to answer in the coming weeks.

 

Self-policing

There was poor turnout for last Thursday's meeting of the county council's Standards Committee called to adjudicate on the case of ex-Cllr and Cabinet member Brian Howells who had been found by the Monitoring Officer to have breached the code of conduct by failing to declare his interest and voting on a matter before Fishguard and Goodwick Town Council.
In the event the committee decided that there was insufficient evidence to find against Mr Howells on the first issue and, after he admitted to the second charge and apologised, the committee decided that no further action was necessary.
However, the case was not without its interest because, during his time on the council, Mr Howells had been a member of the Standards Committee and, as the chairman Susan Smith admitted, this made it rather difficult because they all knew him.
However, she added "There is no way round it given the way the Government decided Standards Committees should be convened."
This was a reference to the fact that the council's constitution allows the Leader to appoint two elected members (both from his own Independent Political (sic(k)) Group, as it happens) to this committee.
Old Grumpy is not quite sure that holding the Government responsible for this state of affairs is an entirely fair representation of the position.
What the relevant legislation says is that Standards Committees must be comprised of between 5-9 people, at least half of whom should be independents (in the honourable sense of the word) from outside the council.
The legislation therefore allows, but does not require, elected members to serve on Standards Committees.
My own long-held view is that, as Standard Committees are designed to boost public confidence in the integrity of local government, it rather defeats the object to have elected members sitting in judgement of members of their own, or any other, party.
After all, self-policing whether by the BMA, the Law Society or any other body is increasingly unacceptable to the general public.
However, my previous attempt to put through a Notice of Motion making the Standards Committee entirely independent (in the honourable sense of the word) was roundly defeated by the Independent (in the dishonourable sense of the word) Group's block vote.
I shall return!

Ken's lament

It has been quite a week for the Code of Conduct because, at the same time as Mr Howells was appearing before the county council's standards committee, Ken Livingstone was up in front of the Adjudication Panel for England accused of bringing the office of Mayor of London into disrepute.
The panel decided that Ken was guilty as charged and suspended him for a month; a decision widely condemned as undemocratic in the press.
As so often, the facts tell a different story.
The Code of Conduct, which all local politicians agree to abide by on taking office, is a statutory document approved by Parliament.
Similarly, the Adjudication Panel and its powers.
Surely, to describe the exercise of functions approved by Parliament; the nations supreme elected body, as undemocratic, is to turn logic on its head.
There has also been widespread publicity for the case of Powys County Councillor Bob Mills who, according to reports, has been barred from speaking on matters concerning windmills by the council's Monitoring Officer.
The reason that Cllr Mills has been silenced is that he has written letters to the local papers and made speeches against windmills and could not therefore be considered impartial on the issue.
Christopher Booker wrote a rather overheated piece on this subject in the Sunday Telegraph under the headline "" 'Prejudicial interest' rules make a mockery of democracy."
Firstly, it is my understanding that, while Monitoring Officers can advise members that they shouldn't speak on a matter in which they might be considered to have an interest, they have no power to to prevent them from speaking.
The rule is that the final decision is for the member to make, though, if he was ever hauled up before the Ombudsman, the fact that he had ignored the Monitoring Officer's advice could add to the seriousness of the offence.
In any case, these rules on "prejudicial interests" only apply to members of planning committees which, when determining applications, are quasi-judicial bodies.
Clearly, it is desirable that those making decisions of a judicial nature should hear all the evidence before making up their minds.
Nobody would have the slightest problem with the idea that jury members should approach their task with an open mind unsullied by prejudgement, so why on earth shouldn't exactly the same considerations apply to members of a planning committee?

Democratic limits

I think the answer to the above question comes down to a conflict between those who believe in government by the will of the people and those who believe in the rule of law.
Of course, the dividing line is not that clear-cut because the will of the people decides who will hold power and ultimately what the law will be.
But the point is that until such time as the will of the people effects a change in the law, the law as it exists stands supreme.
In any case the will of the people is a rather slippery and extremely dangerous concept because nobody really knows what it is at any given time.
I represent 1,800 people in Hakin but, short of holding weekly opinion polls, I cannot possibly say that when I put my hand up to vote in a council meeting I am carrying out their will.
Politicians, especially those in the majority, are very keen to invoke the will of the people as justification for their actions.
A few months back I heard Geoff Hoon telling Radio 4 that the Labour government had been elected with the overwhelming support of the British people and the leader of the Independent Political (sic(k)) Group often tells we recalcitrant members of the opposition that his party has a 38-22 majority on the county council because "the ballot box has spoken".
In fact, at the last election, the electorate divided 64-36 against Labour and it has been calculated that, in the last county council elections, the IPG obtained its large majority on the back of just 15% of the electorate.
Despite these arithmetical anomalies, nobody challenges the election results or suggests they should be overturned.
So, I think it is more accurate to say that governments rule with the consent of the people rather than by virtue of the will of the people.
And I would suggest that that consent is conditional on those who hold power observing the constitution and the basic democratic decencies.
It is interesting to consider whether there is any limit to what the people can will.
This question is very important in the light of Hamas' success in the Palestinian elections, where they won over 60% of the vote.
Both the USA and the EU consider Hamas to be a terrorist organisation and are threatening to withhold aid unless it renounces violence and recognises Israel's the right to exist.
I hear voices saying that Hamas is the democratic choice of Palestinian people and it is not for outsiders to impose such conditions.
This must be wrong because a terrorist democracy is a contradiction in terms.
Anyone who argues otherwise must concede that, by the same token, if the Israelis were to elect a hard-line militaristic government, on a manifesto pledge to invade Palestinian territory and crush Hamas, that would be equally democratic.
Two principles emerge from all this.
Firstly, elections are a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for a democracy (Russia, Zimbabwe, Iran, Uganda etc).
And, secondly, the fact that people can be persuaded to vote for something doesn't make it right (present-day Palestine and 1930s Germany).


Watching brief

 

I see from the County Echo that the row over the totally unfounded criticisms of Fishguard's Mayor, Richard Davies, by the county council's "Minister of Culture" Rob Lewis shows no sign of abating (see Humble pie)
Cllr Lewis has now written to the Mayor with an apology of a sort in which he says "It appears that I may have done you an injustice."
But Cllr Davies is not satisfied with these mealy-mouthed, weasel words and is now threatening to sue for defamation.
He also wants to know who actually wrote the letter and is considering a complaint to the Ombudsman on the grounds that Cllr Lewis has brought the council into disrepute (shades of Ken Livingstone).
As someone who has received similar treatment from the county council's, taxpayer-funded propaganda machine (see Own Goal)
Old Grumpy is taking a keen interest in these latest developments.

Shared misery

I think I can now decently broach the delicate subject of the Six Nations championship.
I have kept a diplomatic silence up to now to avoid accusations that I was crowing.
But England's abject performance at Murrayfield last Saturday has removed all bragging rights and what transpired in Dublin on Sunday was even worse from a Welsh point of view.
I suppose the only consolation for the Welsh is that their Grand Slam sweaters are newer than mine and, on the most recent evidence, likely to remain so for some considerable time .
At least there is no danger that England's season might be completely derailed by defeat at the hands of Italy.

email: oldgrumpy.mike@virgin.net

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