3 February 2004


Grumpy the seer

Last Thursday I gave up my night at the bridge club to attend Cllr Maurice Hughes' "open mic" session in County Hall.
I wish I hadn't bothered.
There sat His Leadership flanked by Cllr John Davies - the acceptable face of the Independent Group - and Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse - this trio doing most of the talking while the 50 or so members of the public struggled to get a word in edgeways.
Matters were not helped by the panel being seated on a raised dais where they could speak down to us - not that the Laird of Angle needs extra elevation for that purpose.
The fact that questions had to be submitted in writing also helped the establishment to keep things under control.
The problem with this sort of set up is that the panel can say almost anything without fear of serious challenge.
For instance, when questioned about the appointment of Independent Political Group stooges to be chairs of the four scrutiny committees, His Leadership replied: "The appointments were not made by Maurice Hughes, nor were they made by the Independent Group, they were made by full council."
While it is undoubtedly true that the appointments were formalised by full council, what is also true is that the actual decisions were taken elsewhere.
So, in my column of the 6 May 2002 I was able to give the names of the four scrutiny committee chairmen that Cllr Hughes and the Cabinet had decided upon the previous Friday (see Scrutineers).
They were duly appointed, without the need for a vote, at the county council's AGM on 10 May 2002.
My consultant statistician assures me that the chances of my selecting the four names at random is 29 (39 Independents minus the ten already appointed to the Cabinet) x 28 x 27 x 26, which, in betting shop parlance, works out at just over 570,000:1.
If that is not evidence enough, I would point out that in order to give a spurious impression of inclusivity the Cabinet agreed to give two of the vice-chairmanships to the Labour Group.
The only condition was that the Independents would nominate the candidates.
The chosen twosome was Cllrs Ken Edwards and Simon Hancock; neither noted for any tendency to rock the boat.
Sadly, in what was not its finest hour, the Labour Group conived in this shabby little stitch-up.

Legal smokescreen

Another question concerned the secrecy surrounding the granting of pay increases to the Chief Executive and Directors.
From what I could make of His Leadership's reply, he was suggesting that to discuss such matters in public would be illegal.
I don't know where Cllr Hughes got that idea but I think it is almost certainly wrong.
The Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985 starts with the presumption that all County Council meetings will be held in public.
There are two exceptions to this rule.
Firstly, when "confidential information" from a government department is to be discussed.
And, secondly, when "if members of the public were present during that item there would be the disclosure to them of exempt information as defined ...".
There are 15 categories of exempt information including: "Information relating to a particular employee ..." which would clearly include any discussion of the Chief Executive's pay.
However, whereas the section dealing with confidential information mandates that "The public shall be excluded .." that concerned with exempt information provides that "A principle council may (my emphasis) by resolution exclude the public ...".
Clearly, then, the leglislation gives the council the discretion to discuss officers' pay in public if they so wish.
How typical of them to try to hide their obsession with secrecy behind a legal smokescreen!

Fantasy finance

The week before last,, Cllr Hughes was in Milford Haven as part of the Independent Group's election campaign.
Old Grumpy's eye was attracted by a headline in the Mercury "Milford getting a 'fairly big share'" over an article on his meeting with Milford Haven Town Council.
In response to a question from Cllr Rhys Sinnett, the county council Leader had claimed that the authority's capital spending in Milford Haven amounted to £151 million for the period 1996-2002 (£25 million per year), another £25 million in the financial year 2002-2003 and that a whopping £38 million was budgeted for 2004 -2005.
I know the figures are reported accurately because they tally exactly with the notes of Old Grumpette who was also in attendance.
It is not clear where the Leader obtained these figure but they are not easily reconciled with the county council's budget; recently approved by the Cabinet.
Nor is it altogether obvious where these vast amounts of treasure have been spent.
According to the budget document, capital spending in the whole of Pembrokeshire for 2004-2005 is predicted to be £61 million and, if Cllr Hughes is correct, Milford Haven's £38 million would represent some 62% of the total.
If that were even remotely near the truth, the people of the town would have nothing to complain about.
Indeed, the rest of the county would, justifiably, be up in arms if almost two-thirds of the money was to be spent on only12% of the population.
However, closer examination of next year's capital spending budget shows that Cllr Hughes' claims cannot bear even the most cursory scrutiny.
Analysis shows that spending on projects specific to Milford Haven is set at £1.5 million compared to Haverfordwest £5.2 million and Pembroke Dock £7 million.
The corresponding figures for the previous year (2003-2004) are Milford Haven £0.6 million, Haverfordwest £3.1 million and Pembroke Dock £2.2 million.
So any idea that Milford Haven is getting its fair share of the cake is strictly for the birds.
The idea, that is, not the cake.

Tables turned

Never was defeat snatched so comprehensively from the jaws of victory as by Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell following the publication of the Hutton report.
Despite the report having a Law Lord's stamp of approval, early opinion polls showed that more than 56% of us thought it was a whitewash.
Ironically, the very openness of the Hutton enquiry's procedures was its undoing.
Having heard all the evidence, we found it utterly incredible that the Government had emerged squeaky clean.
It was admitted that the Joint Intelligence Committee's (JIC) original version of the dossier stated that Iraq's WMD "may be able" to be deployed in 45 minutes.
And hadn't that been changed by the Chairman of the JIC, John Scarlett , at the behest of his "mate", Mr Campbell, to "are able"?
To most people, unused to the arcane legalisms of the House of Lords Judicial Committee, that was near enough to "sexing up" to put Andrew Gilligan at least halfway in the clear.
Although most people accepted that the BBC's editorial practices left much to be desired, the picture painted by Hutton of a government of saints was a bit too much to swallow.
And, to make matters worse, those two master readers of the public mood, Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell, particularly Campbell, couldn't resist calling for the BBC's blood.
The British have traditionally had a reputation for admiring the gallant loser, but what Blair and Campbell have learned, too late I fear, is that we like a gracious winner, too.


On second thoughts, I want to qualify the opening statement on the piece above.
My change of mind is inspired by the news that Clive Woodward has appointed Lawrence Dallaglio as captain of England.
Most of you will not have the same feelings about Capt Dallaglio as me, the exact opposite, I expect.
But back in the spring of 1999 his bungling incompetence caused me the most traumatic few minutes of my life.
The scene was Wembli, home of Welsh rugby.
With full time looming England, who had a comfortable six point lead, were awarded a penalty inside the Welsh half.
It was well within Jonny's range.
Had he kicked it it would have left Wales needing to score twice.
Had he missed, Wales would have had a 25 drop out, and several valuable minutes would have been wasted.
But "Fancy Dan" Dallaglio decided to kick for touch in an attempt to put the icing on the cake with a final try.
Wales won the lineout against the throw and Tim Rodber was penalised for an illegal tackle.
Jenkins sent the ball sailing into touch deep in England territory.
The ball came back on the Welsh side and was quickly moved out to Scott Gibbs who sidestepped one defender and then another.
Sorry, the memory is all too painful, I can't go on.

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