8 February 2005

email: oldgrumpy.mike@virgin.net

Non-political party

Something you often hear from the Pembrokeshire Independent Group is that there is no place for politics in local government.
I am never quite sure what this means.
If they are saying there is no place for politics, period, then they are surely wrong.
Next year the county council, which they control, is set to spend £160 million of taxpayers' money - £227 million if you include capital spending.
Decisions on how to prioritise the expenditure of this fixed pot of money can't help but be political.
If you remove political judgment from the equation, you are left sticking pins into a list of spending options.
Or voting through whatever the officers put in front of you, which is what actually happens.
Of course, not everyone will agree about the allocation of the the available money, but debating the various possibilities in the hope that you can convince your fellow members that your priorities are the best, is what politics is about.
On the other hand, it may be that what the Pembrokeshire Independent Group mean when they advocate keeping politics out of local government, is party politics.
Naturally, being a truly independent member of the county council, I have some sympathy with this view.
However, it is clearly not what the Independents mean because no sooner had they been elected than they all signed up to what is, to all intents and purposes, a political party.
Even as I write this, the party members are probably meeting in County Hall to receive their instructions for tomorrow's debate on the Ombudsman's report.



Last week, I wrote about the two letters - one from Dr Michael Ryan; one from Chief Supt Paul Amphlett - used by the leader at the December meeting of the county council as part of his case against Notices of Motion from Cllr Michael Williams and myself.
Requests for copies of these letters immediately following that meeting were repelled, but the Freedom of Information act came to the rescue and they are now to hand.
I dealt with Dr Ryan's letter last week (see Freedom come) , though I will, no doubt, return to the subject in due course.
The letter from the police is particularly interesting because it appears to have been solicited by county council chief executive, Mr Bryn Parry-Jones.
It begins: "Dear Mr Parry-Jones, I refer to our recent telephone conversation and your request for clarity regarding the nature of the investigation into Councillor Hall and implications for the Freedom of Information Act.
For reasons about which one can only speculate, Chief Supt Amphlett copied the letter to the leader, Cllr John Davies, who seized the opportunity to quote it selectively to bolster his argument against my NoM.
My NoM, I should explain, required the publication of a statement given to the police, on the council's behalf, by the Director of Finance, Mr Mark Lewis.
Unfortunately, everything I know about the contents of this statement has come to me second hand through conversations and correspondence with the police (See The untouchables).
This includes the explanation; given during a telephone conversation with the police, that Cllr Hall had the council's permission to take the scenic route Severn Bridge - Haverfordwest - Pembroke Dock - Penllergaer because he had to deliver an "Irish inward investor" to the ferry.
And, in a letter dated 11 November 2001, the police informed me that they had obtained a "formal statement" from a senior member of the authority [Mark Lewis].
According to the police: "The statement states that in their opinion, no criminal act has been committed and that they are the injured party in this case."
Of course, I have no idea whether or not what the police have told me about Mr Lewis' statement is true.
But, if it is, it raises some serious issues because my investigations reveal that the ferry sailed at 3.04 pm that day - it was scheduled to sail at 2.30 pm - and having crossed the Severn Bridge at 12.56 pm, and bought lunch lunch at the First Motorway Service Station near Magor at 1.08 pm, Cllr Hall couldn't possibly be in Pembroke Dock in time to catch it.
Furthermore, if Cllr Hall been intending to catch the ferry, would he have delayed his departure from London to 10.13 am; the time the credit card slip he provided to support his expense claim shows he paid his bill at the Jarvis International Hotel in Hyde Park?
For a fuller account of Cllr Hall's movements that day see (The Time Lord).
But to return to Chief Supt Amphlett's letter.
The first question, I suppose, is why one of the councils "trained lawyers" should be asking a policeman for advice on the workings of the Freedom of Information Act.
After all, it is exactly the same act as applies to the county council.
However, what Chief Supt Amphlett had to tell him was unremittingly good news.
"If a member of the public seeks disclosure of the statement under the Freedom of Information act, we (the Police) would almost certainly be seeking exemption from disclosure under Section 30 (1)."
As this letter is dated 10 December 2004, and the FoI Act was not due to come into force until 1 January 2005, this looks like prejudging the issue.
I would have though that, as a matter of legal principle, the police have a duty to consider every application on its merits, and the blanket policy to of refusal that the Chief Supt seems to be advocating would be unlawful.
In any case, the exemption referred to is subject to the public interest test.
Fortunately, these matters are not to be decided in the closed rooms of County Hall or Haverfordwest Police Station.
The final arbiter will be the wholly independent Information Commissioner and whether or not the public interest would be served by clearing up the present confusion about the content of Mr Lewis' statement is something I will be taking up with him.
But even that route may not be open because, according to Chief Supt Amphlett: "Even if release of Mr Lewis' statement was to be considered [under the terms of the Act it will have to be considered] it contains personal data and under the terms of the Data Protection Act 1998, permission of the author would have to be obtained."
I am somewhat mystified as to how personal information comes to intrude into this situation but, hopefully, in the fullness of time, all will be revealed - or not.

Nodding donkeys

On Monday it took the county council's cabinet only five minutes to nod through the budget..
Adding that to the five minutes it took to nod through the draft version at its January meeting, makes ten minutes in all.
The net revenue budget is set at £161 m and capital spending £66 million.
As the mathematicians among you will already have worked out, this comes to £22.7 million per minute, or, give or take the odd pound or two, £380,000 per second.
In between the two cabinet meetings the budget has been to the four overview and scrutiny committees for consideration, though not a single penny was moved from one head of spending to another during this process.
I find such unanimity positively frightening.
So, as the budget that was up for consideration on Monday was precisely the same document that it approved back in January, it was little wonder that yesterday's cabinet dealt with it so swiftly.
In fact, most of the five minutes was spent, not on discussing next year's spending plans, but on spin.
The leader said he wanted to "make it clear to the electorate that there would only be a five per cent increase in Council Tax next year."
This is, at best, misleading because, as I explained last month, the amount of money to be collected from Pembrokeshire taxpayers next year is £27.85 million compared to £24.66 million in the current year - an increase of 13%.
It is true that the band D rate of Council Tax is only going up by 5% but that is because the rebanding exercise has led to 36% of households moving up at least one band with the result that the council's tax base has increased by 8%.
Having done hard sums at university, I was confident of my arithmetic when I first drew attention to the misinformation put out by the council (see Brass Tax), and I am pleased to report that the council's Director of Finance confirmed my figures during last Friday's member's seminar; chaired, incidentally, by the leader.

Tory boys

It was interesting to listen to the cabinet debate on the level of Council tax.
Cllr David Wildman said the tax was unfair because it is not based on the ability to pay.
Cllr Peter Stock said it was "very unfair" for the same reasons.
It occurred to Old Grumpy that these two right wing Tories would be well advised to keep quiet about the iniquities of the Council Tax because it was their party that introduced it in the first place.
Perhaps they still hanker after the Poll Tax.

Positive thinking

And finally that match.
I always try to look on the bright side, however desperate the situation.
But I must admit to some difficulty in being philosophical about last weekend's events.
However, after few days' quiet reflection, I have identified the following positives:
1. I didn't have a bet on it.
2. The Millennium Stadium was built by an English company.
3. I survived the seventies
4. In the great scheme of things, a year isn't all that long.
5. Italy looked quite useful against Ireland.
6. I don't play golf anymore.
7. Up to Saturday, England had gone undefeated through 2005.


No answer, came the stern reply

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