4 February 2002

 

Cover-up exposed

The comic opera involving Cllr Brian Hall's bogus expense claim is reaching its climax and, although the fat lady has yet to sing, she is busy clearing her throat in readiness for the grand finale.
As I always suspected the council has spun a web of deceit over this matter and I have now obtained the vital piece of evidence that proves it.
You may remember that this affair involves Cllr Hall's movements on 1 February 2001 - by happy coincidence, Old Grumpy's birthday.
On the day previous, 31 January, Cllr Hall had travelled to London to attend a House of Commons reception, following which he stayed overnight at the Jarvis International Hotel in Hyde Park.
The next day he headed back to Wales.
February 1 2001 proved to be a busy day for the Chairman of the Highways Committee because at 2.00 pm that day his expense claim shows him setting off from Pembroke Dock to attend a meeting of the South Wales Integrated Transport Consortium in Swansea (SWITCH) a round trip of 130 miles for which he claimed £62 in travelling expenses.
When I came across this expense claim, during my annual trawl through the County Council's accounts, it struck me as rather strange that Cllr Hall should chose to travel from London to Swansea via Pembroke Dock.
My enquiries with the Transportation Department at Swansea City Council revealed that this SWITCH meeting, held in the offices of Neath/Port Talbot County Council at Penllergaer, commenced at 2.00 pm and that Cllr Hall was present.
My immediate suspicion was that he had called in at Swansea on his way back from London and that the claim for 130 miles at 48.5p (£62) in respect of the Pembroke Dock-Swansea-Haverfordwest-Pembroke Dock journey was fraudulent.
Closer examination of the receipts submitted in support of his claim bore out my suspicions.
One of these showed him purchasing lunch at the First Motorway Service Station near Magor at 1.08 pm on 1 February on his way back from London.
Clearly the time on this receipt is inconsistent with him being in Pembroke Dock, 120 miles away, just 52 minutes later, at 2.00pm.
I made a formal complaint to the police to whom I provided copies of the expense claim and the relevant receipts.
A couple of weeks later I received a phone call from Haverfordwest police who informed me that they were taking no further action in the matter.
According to the police the County Council's Director of Finance, Mark Lewis, had provided a statement in which he said that Cllr Hall had been given permission to travel from London to Swansea via Pembroke Dock in order to put an Irish inward investor on the ferry.
As neither I, nor any elected member of the council, have been allowed sight of this statement, I cannot be certain that this is what Mr Lewis actually told the police, though it should be said that Cllr Bill Philpin claims that, during a conversation with Mr Lewis, the Director of Finance offered him the Irish inward investor explanation for Cllr Hall's circumambulations on that day.
Not that it matters (unless the Irish investor was Dr Who) because the ferry sailed at 3.04 pm that day and having stopped off at Magor for lunch at 1.08pm, it was no longer possible to reach Pembroke Dock, 120 miles distant, on time.
And if Cllr Hall was not dropping off an inward investor why did he drive past Penllergaer at 2.30pm on the afternoon of February 1 - half an hour after the SWITCH meeting started - and all the way to Pembroke Dock (via Haverfordwest) and back again?
Perhaps he was feeling homesick!
In an attempt to get at the truth, Cllr Joyce Watson submitted four written questions to December's meeting of full council on the subject of Cllr Hall's peregrinations on 1 February
Faced with some rather difficult facts, the council could have put their hands up and said that Cllr Hall had made a mistake when filling in his claim form and that he now remembered that he had in fact called in at the SWITCH meeting on his way back from London (nobody would have believed them, but there would be nothing they could do about it) but, typically, they chose to brazen their way out of it by putting up the poor, hapless Chairman, Cllr Rosemary Hayes to tell lies on the Council's behalf.

Reading from a prepared script she told the council: "The relevant facts are that Councillor Hall undertook approved duties and can establish that he actually made the journeys for which he claimed travelling allowances".
However Old Grumpy has now obtained a copy of the relevant page from Neath/Port Talbot's visitors' register that shows Cllr Hall departing the offices at 15.45 (quarter-to-four in old money) after the SWITCH meeting had finished.
So, we have Cllr Hall purchasing his lunch at Magor at 1.08 pm and signing out of the SWITCH meeting at 3.45pm. During the interval of 157 minutes he is supposed to have eaten his lunch and driven from Magor to Haverfordwest (125 miles) from Haverfordwest to Pembroke Dock (10 miles) and from Pembroke Dock back to Penllergaer (60 miles) - 195 miles in all. Allowing him 20 minutes to eat his lunch etc. that would leave him to 137 minutes to travel 195 miles i.e. 85 mph.
And that is the minimum speed he would have needed to attain because it is calculated on the basis that he didn't arrive back in Penllergaer until the very end of the SWITCH meeting and whatever business he had in Haverfordwest and Pembroke Dock took zero time to conduct.
So Cllr Hayes statement that Cllr Hall "can establish that he actually made the journeys…" is demonstrably false.
I have no doubt that someone other than Cllr Hayes was the author of this statement, but that doesn't get her off the hook.
As a Justice of the Peace, she should have understood that making a false statement involving criminal matters could amount to perverting the course of justice.
Consequently, she should have insisted on satisfying herself of the existence of the evidence before asserting that it was sufficient to "establish that he actually made the journeys for which he claimed travelling allowances".
The Nuremberg defence: "I was just obeying orders" simply isn't good enough.
At the end of the day it is the elected members who are ultimately accountable for what goes on in the council.
At least that's the theory.
So, what started out as an enquiry into whether or not Cllr Brian Hall fraudulently claimed £62 from the public purse has developed into a much more serious question: who was the driving force behind the council's attempted cover-up and to what extent did the police collude with them?
I will deal with the role of the police more fully next week.

 

Uneasy truce

One of my agents tells me that a subtle game of cat and mouse is being played out within the County Council's ruling Independent Political (sic) Group.
As I wrote last week, several of the more honest members of the ruling junta have deep misgivings about the way things are developing, particularly the lies being told about Hallgate (see above) as it will be referred to henceforth.
However, in the next few weeks The Leader, Maurice Hughes, will be handing out baubles in the form of Cabinet posts (eight at £22,000) Chairmanships (eight at £17,000) and Vice-Chairmanships (eight at £13,000) and the (mainly) old boys in the Politburo they are all keeping their heads below the parapet to avoid rocking the boat, if you see what I mean.
However, while the leader holds all the Aces, boondoggle-wise, the foot soldiers have a nice hand of trumps - their votes in any leadership contest that may take place.
So, the Leader, anxious not to offend anyone, is being rather coy about who he has in mind for high office in case a disgruntled loser mounts a challenge or, even more damaging, leads an exodus from the Group, denuding it of its controlling majority before everything is neatly in place.
I expect this uneasy (unholy?) coalition to hold together until after the Council AGM but once that milestone is past there could be blood on the carpet.

 

Think no evil

During my annual trawls through the County Council's books I have come across dozens of invoices from the Fourcroft Hotel in Tenby amounting to tens of thousands of pounds, in total.
This expenditure is, I understand, for overnight accommodation for council staff on "team building" exercises; the brainchild of some American management guru.
I am told that, even if they live quite close to Tenby, the officers on these courses are required to stay overnight because the theory is that spending the night under the same roof (but, hopefully, not under the same duvet) helps stiffen members' resolve to pull together and provide more satisfying service.
Now, a mole tells me, these management-training sessions have taken the concept of organisational solidarity to new levels with staff being told that making negative or derogatory remarks about the council could become a disciplinary offence.
It'll be the thought police next.

Stop press.Just as I was about to post this week's offering onto the internet I received a phone call from one of my most reliable County Hall moles.Apparantly two members of staff were sent home today after being found in a stationery cupboard taking rather too much interest in each other. Other staff were sworn to secrecy and and told that to divulge what had happened would be a sackable offence. So just what is allowed in County Hall these days?

The wreckers

Poor old Tony Blair is having a terrible time with the dreaded "Forces of conservatism" in the Trades Unions and the Tory Party, which are threatening "to wreck" his attempt to reform the public services.
I suppose with both him and the missus being members of that most Spanish -practise-ridden profession of all - the Bar - he should know about these things.
What the Prime Minister is talking about is what the Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman calls "the tyranny of the status quo" an allusion to the fact that we all dislike change.
Friedman's answer to the problem is more and freer markets.
He argues that under free market conditions it is the consumer that calls the tune while monopoly, whether publicly or privately-owned, gives producers the whip hand.
Therefore, he says, where free markets prevail consumers can force change whether producers like it or not because it only requires one producer to embrace the change that consumers demand and the rest either have to fall into line or fall by the wayside.
I fancy Friedman is right about all that, though quite how these principles can be applied to something like the NHS which is free at the point of need and, by definition, has no price mechanism to weed out the lazy and the inefficient, I am not quite sure.
Perhaps the State can set the standards and targets and establish mechanisms to ensure that public servants comply, though it is difficult to know where, in a small country like the UK, all the room is to be found to build the Gulags for those refuse to toe the line.

Persistence pays

Once you get the first brick out of the wall, the rest soon follow. (old Cumberland saying)

 

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