4 February 2003

Missed opportunity

Had we not been in Oswestry last Saturday attending a family wedding, I would have been tempted to send Old Grumpette to a "hands-on workshop" organised by PLANED where she could have received instruction on the safe use and care of small tools such as the billhook, scythe, saw and loppers.
She is already a dab hand with blunt instruments like the spade, rake, fork and hoe, so this course would have turned her in to the complete gardener/handywoman, leaving me to spend the long summer days sitting in a deckchair drinking iced chardonnay from a cut glass tumbler while amusing myself by watching Old Grumpette lopping, scything, chopping and sawing, or, if that proved too strenuous, observing the blue tits ferrying insects back to their nestlings in the hand crafted bird box that she could have made during the afternoon session of the workshop.
And, to cap it all, she would have qualified for a free lunch and refreshments - all at the taxpayers' expense.


Poor relief

Last October, during my annual trawl through the County Council's accounts, I came across a file containing details of some dozens of payments made under the "Foot and Mouth hardship scheme".
One thing that struck me was that only cheque to find its way to Milford Haven was that received by Milford Haven Maritime Museum for £738.
This appears to go against the theory that those businesses not directly affected by the foot and mouth outbreak had actually done rather better than usual as tourists who normally spent their time walking the coast path, pony trekking or yomping in the Preselis were driven into their arms.
And, I suppose, it was rather strange that, of all the businesses in the town, the Museum alone had suffered a drop in takings.
Stranger still is the fact that when I went down to the Town Hall and inspected a copy of the Museum's accounts I found that the income from visitors, at £4,692, was a mere £24 down on the previous year's £4,716, so it is something of a mystery how it came to qualify for a grant.

Lying low

During the recent "open mic" session with the top guns from the Welsh Assembly, hosted by Pembrokeshire College, questions were asked about Pembrokeshire County Council's reputation for secrecy and backstairs dealing.
According to newspaper reports, the Leader, Cllr Maurice Hughes, responded that his authority was "as open as any other council".
Eyewitnesses (or should it be earwitnesses) tell me that this was greeted by hoots of derision from the audience.
And quite right too.
It is now almost three months since I wrote to His Leadership seeking clarification of a press release he had put out about the relationship between Cabinet member Brian Hall and the authority's economic development consultant Dr Patrick Ryan: the two directors of Euro-Ryall Ltd, a company incorporated soon after the commencement Dr Ryan's employment with the council (see Unanswered Questions)
In that press release, Cllr Hughes claimed that the two men had consulted council officers before setting up the company and had given an undertaking not to trade in Pembrokeshire.
I was interested to know the names of the officers involved, the date of the meeting and the nature of the undertaking, its enforcibility in particular.
His replied that he had nothing further to add.
I again emailed Cllr Hughes on 5 December 2002 and 8 January 2003 repeating my questions.
His original press release also claimed that Dr Ryan had been appointed after the post had been advertised in the Irish press.
In my email of 8 January I asked for the name of the publication and the date the advert was published.
Simple question, you might think, but I still await a reply.
What I do know is that during October 2000 - between Dr Ryan's engagement by the council in August 2000 and the incorporation of Euro-Ryall Ltd in December 2000 - he and Cllr Hall spent the best part of a week together in Pembroke Dock at the taxpayer's expense.
Were they acting for the taxpayer or Euro-Ryall during this period?
I also know that, in February 2001, Cllr Hall twice bought lunch for his business partner and claimed the cost from the council.
And that, more recently, in September 2001, he claimed for driving from Pembroke Dock to Withybush airfield to meet Dr Ryan off a plane.
What concerns me is that Cllr Hall's membership of the Cabinet and his business relationship with someone employed by the council could amount to a conflict of interest.
Of course, if the undertaking not to trade in Pembrokeshire is in the form of a legally binding agreement, there is no problem.
That is why I am pressing Cllr Hughes for an answer.
I notice that during the Pembrokeshire College meeting His Leadership promised that the County Council would hold an open question and answer session.
If he hasn't answered my emails by then, he can expect to find me sitting in the front row.


Grape or grain?


We are all familiar with the concept of inferior goods - those cheap shoddy shoes that disintegrate the first time we wear them out in the rain.
But in classical economics the term inferior goods has a rather different meaning.
As a general rule consumption rises in line with incomes.
However there are certain classes of goods (inferior goods) where this relationship doesn't hold.
For instance, as we become richer and can afford steak and smoked salmon there is less need for us to fill our bellies with bread and potatoes.
So, the demand for these so-called inferior goods diminishes.
Another example is the steady growth in sales of wine at the expense of beer.
Old Grumpy came across a striking example of this particular phenomenon while inspecting petty cash records during last autumn's public audit of the County Council's books.
From these records, it would appear that our elected representatives prefer wine to beer by a ratio exceeding 25:1.
The evidence for this - admittedly not absolute proof because I couldn't find all the records among the 150,000 invoices and chits - is to be found in the entries for late February-early March 2002 where it is recorded "Wine - Denise £353.50" and "Beer - Ron £14.28".
Denise is the Chairman's secretary and, from what I can discover, Ron is a former Council chauffeur.
Why one or other of them couldn't attend to all the council's booze requirements, as seems to have occurred on 10/1/02 when the entry reads "Chief Exec (Cabinet drinks) £462.03" is not altogether clear.
Division of labour, I suppose.


No to toadies

Old Grumpy has an admission to make - I'm beginning to like Robin Cooke.
Ever since he was sacked as Foreign Secretary and put out to grass, as Leader of the House of Commons, Cooke has shown himself to be a true champion of Parliamentary democracy and his latest dispute with Tony Blair over the composition of the House of Lords has done his reputation no end of good.
The excuse used by Mr Blair and his former pupil-master Lord Irvine for turning their faces against any elected element in the second chamber is the fear that such democratic legitimacy will encourage the members to set themselves up in opposition to the House of Commons.
"A rival rather than a revising chamber" as Mr Blair put it.
That point has little merit because the powers of the new body will be circumscribed by the Act of Parliament setting it up and there is no reason why it should not be restricted to the same powers as those exercised by the present House of Lords.
However, because of our unwritten constitution and our peculiar electoral system, there are strong grounds for having an independent second chamber with the ability to check an overmighty Executive, rather than the House of Toadies proposed by Mr Blair..
Our first past the post electoral system allows parties to win large majorities with relatively little support - in Tony Blair's case 25% of the total electorate.
Add to that almost unlimited Prime Ministerial power and patronage, courtesy of our ramshackle constitution, and you have all the ingredients for what Lord Hailsham called "an elective dictatorship".
P S I have just heard the result of the vote on the radio.
Keep it up Robin!



What a pity we have had to wait all these years to find out about the affair between Wallis Simpson and Guy Trundle.
Think how the language would have been improved if "to trundle" had made its way into the vocabulary instead of references to engineering, sea birds and crude Anglo Saxon.
And, by the way, who was Roger?


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