January 10 2006

email: oldgrumpy.mike@virgin.net

Seal of approval

Readers are still emailing to express puzzlement at Cllr Brian Hall's huge appetite for taxpayer-funded travel.
You will remember that, when I published the figures back in July, they showed that, of the £40,800 in mileage allowances claimed by the 60 elected members during the financial year 2004/2005, Cllr Hall had trousered £9,800, or, as near as makes no difference, 25%.
This, as I'm sure you will agree, shows remarkable dedication.
I have to be a bit careful of what I say about this because, the last time I ventured into this territory, Cllr Hall sent his lawyers over the top, though their threats to sue never came to anything.
What that revolved around was an article I wrote in the Mercury questioning the validity of some of his travelling claims, which I believed not to be in respect of "approved duties", as required by law.
I had naively assumed that the definition of "approved duty" in the Members Allowances regulations 1991 held sway in Pembrokeshire.
But my more recent correspondence with the District Audit Service indicates that I may be wrong about this because they claim that, where the county council is concerned an approved duty includes:

"at the request of the Chief Executive: the Leader of council and other group leaders (or their nominated representative(s)) to attend at such meetings for the proper discharge of the business of the authority."

Not only is there no mention of either the Chief Executive or the Leader in the regulations passed by Parliament, but the whole thrust of the statutory wording, which refers to "duties approved by the body [the council] or duties of a class so approved", is entirely different (for a more comprehensive analysis of this subject see Movable feast).
However, there is no doubt that Cllr Hall's massive travel claims owe much, but not all (see The Time Lord), to this generous interpretation (rewriting?) of the law.
What rather surprises me is that, having inspected hundreds of expense claims during my annual trawls through the county council's books, I have not come across a single example of another member making claims under this heading.
It seems clear from the wording of definition above that such an approved duty must be triggered by an invitation from the Chief Executive to the Leader or group Leader(s).
If they are unable to oblige they may nominate a representative to carry out the duty on their behalf.
Eager to find out if this is how the system works, I emailed the Leader on 13 December 2005 as follows: "On 8 December 2004, Cllr Brian Hall claimed 120 miles for a return trip to Swansea to: "Collect xxx xxx xxx [this part of the original claim has been carefully blacked out] developers re Pembroke Dock properties."
Can you assure me that Cllr Hall was your "nominated representative" in respect of this duty as required by the authority's travelling expenses scheme?

Yesterday, I received the following reply: "Apologise for the delay in responding, having made further enquiries following your query the answer is yes."
It is not altogether clear why, as the person who did the nominating, the Leader needed to make "further enquiries" nor whether running a taxi service to Swansea qualifies as a meeting, but, be that as it may, I will now be making further enquiries of the leader as to whether he nominated Cllr Hall to attend the LNG caravan site in Waterston (see In denial).

Rough justice


Last week, under the headline "Planning debacle exposed", the Mercury reported on the Ombudman's conclusions regarding a complaint about a planning consent granted at 38 Prospect Place Pembroke Dock .
I am not sure that "debacle", which implies a cock up, is the right word to describe what transpired in this case.
The assessment of the complainant, Mr Arthur Evans: "The way it was handled stinks. They were just determined to pass it" i.e. a conspiracy, is, I believe, much closer to the mark
Mr Evans' case bears remarkable similarities to the Enfield case, which Old Grumpy wrote about in his very first column on this website, because it seems the decision was reached by a process of backward reasoning: the conclusion being reached first and the evidence then invented or distorted to justify it.
The Ombudsman found that "the permitted dwelling, if and when built, will have a negative impact on Mr Evans' amenity" and that the decision to grant consent was based on misleading and incomplete information amounting to maladministration.
However, the Ombundsman was unable to conclude that "the Council's maladministration led to the substantive injustice Mr Evans claims" because ". . . there is no clear evidence that the application would have been rejected had the maladministration . . . not occurred."
As a result the Ombudsman was only able to award Mr Evans a measly £200 "consolatory payment" from the council rather than a more substantial sum of damages had substantive injustice been found.
Not surprisingly, Mr Evans is not the least bit gruntled by this decision.
And who can blame him.
After all, short of telepathy, it will never be possible to know with any certainty whether a decision such as this would have been different had a different set of facts been known.
By the Ombudsman's own admission, Mr Evans' amenity has been detrimentally affected (permanently) as the result of a patently flawed decision taken by the council.
If that doesn't add up to a substantive injustice, I'm a banana!
P S The Prospect Place case has inspired me to collect together all my information on the fascinating case at Enfield. I have almost finished scanning in all the letters and other documents in my possession and I hope to post it on the web in the next few days.For a taster see A cunning plan

Charlie's Angels

Well, what do you think of those nice cuddly Liberal Democrats with their new style of non-confrontational politics?
It seems that, for the past two years or so, the Lib Dems have been trying to fit us up with a Prime Minister, who, because of his fondness for the bottle, has, on several occasions, had to be locked in his room to prevent him making an exhibition of himself on the floor of the House of Commons.
And, when cheerful Charlie was tackled on this subject by The Times among others he, sent his lawyers into action to avoid any mention of his drinking in the public prints.
Last Friday, Mr Kennedy decided to come clean - a decision hailed by his colleagues, in a blizzard of propaganda, as courageous, honest and dignified.
The truth, which has been a mere spectator throughout, being that this sudden bout of candour was brought on when he received word that his former press secretary, now ITV newshound, Daisy Somebodyorother, was about to break the story on that evening's Six O'clock news.
As for the rest of the party, quite a number of them were on my radio just before Christmas pledging their loyal support to their leader.
Should it come as a surprise to learn that, while they were spouting this guff, one of their number was carrying round in his pocket a letter, signed by 11 of them, calling for Kennedy's head?
Never glad confident morning again, I'm afraid.

Missing Tories

My socialist friend has drawn my attention to a party political puff on the Tory website.
Exactly what he was doing on there he didn't say.
Could he be contemplating a reverse Shaun Woodward?
Let's be charitable and assume he stumbled on the site by accident.
The article says: "Welsh Conservatives have welcomed a report which puts Conservative-controlled Monmouthshire and Vale of Glamorgan councils joint top in a performance league table that assess good value for taxpayers. The two authorities were ranked highest out of the 22 councils in Wales in terms of giving residents the best overall deal for their council tax. The survey, published in the Western Mail newspaper, was compiled using official figures across a broad range of council services."
According to Welsh Tory Leader Nicholas Bourne: "This report demonstrates in the clearest possible terms that Welsh Conservatives take local government and public services seriously."
So seriously, in fact, that at the 2004 county council elections they fielded just one candidate in the whole of Pembrokeshire.
Hats off to Frank Elliott (Johnston - in case you'd forgotten)

Pension pitfalls


Hidden away on page 12 of the auditor's report to Thursday's county council corporate governance committee is a short section on pensions, which could spell bad news for the county's hard-pressed taxpayers.
According to the auditor, the actuary has identified a deficit of £51 million as at 31 March 2005 compared to just £4 million a year earlier.
This massively inflated deficit is, apparently, due to changes in the actuary's assumptions - £27 million being attributed to "revised discount rate" (don't ask!) and £15 million to increased longevity.
A little table at the end of the paragraph paints an even more alarming picture because it shows that the deficit increased despite a 10% rise in the value of the funds assets from £191 million to £210 million.
But, that was more than outweighed by an increase in the liabilities from £192 million to £262 million - a rise of 36% - giving some credence to the saying that an actuary is someone who is paid large sums of money to make predictions that never actuary come true.
The actuary has recommended increasing employer's contributions over the next three years with a view to bringing the fund back into balance over a 20 year period.
As you have probably worked out already, employer in this context means you, the taxpayer.
On a crude arithmetical basis, given the county's tax base of roughly 50,000 (band D equivalent properties) this means that we all own about £1,000 of this debt, or £50 a year over the 20 year period.
Unfortunately, while the auditor's report informs us that "This will impact future revenue spending [or taxation] and will require careful planning and continued monitoring", there is no attempt to quantify the likely effects.

Blair talks tough

Mr Blair has now outlined his long-awaited respect agenda.
This involves giving the police more powers to levy on-the-spot punishments tempered by what Mr Blair, as a sop to the civil liberties lobby, described as the right to appeal.
So if the local bobby gives you a quick clip round the ear, and you later prove you innocence, you can give him a clip back.
This latest panic comes with the growing realisation that an increasingly large minority of teenagers is completely outside society's control.
But what do you expect when successive governments, over a period of 40 years or more, have steadily undermined the traditional sources of authority: parents, teachers, police and adults in general.
What is truly amazing is that all this has been done in the name of liberalism.
Surely, if you believe in the value individual liberty - which is what classical liberalism is all about - there should be no difficulty in cracking down on those who would destroy the liberty of others.
Over Christmas I read a brilliant book called "The Strange Death of Liberal England" by George Dangerfield in which he charts the demise of the Liberal Party between 1910 and 1914.
There was a stay of execution during the First World War, but, with the coming of peace, old-fashioned liberalism was swiftly overtaken by socialism, and it's been downhill all the way since then.


Self-esteem or self-delusion

For the past 30 years; incidentally about the same time that the failed methods of teaching reading have been in fashion, building children's self-esteem has been the holy grail of the education system.
Indeed, lack of self esteem, like a deficiency of insulin or seratonin, has come almost to be treated as a medical condition.
Yet, during that time, pregnancy rates among teenagers have soared; drug taking has increased exponentially; and the incidence of bullying in schools has reached epidemic proportions.
And, of course, we have seen the increase in the numbers of feral children that has led to some of the unimaginable crimes reported in recent weeks' papers.
There is nothing wrong with inculcating self-esteem in children, provided we know exactly what we mean by the term.
The problem is that there is a rather thin line separating self-esteem from narcissism.
If by increasing self-esteem we mean encouraging children, rather than putting them down, I'm all for it.
But if it means constantly telling them they're wonderful, when all the evidence points the other way, it is the road to perdition.
Self-esteem that flows from achievement (provided it doesn't tip over into self-conceit and big-headedness) is altogether a good thing.
Self-esteem as a species of human right, is not something we should foster.
Indeed, while surfing the net, I came across an article from Scientific American in which a team of eminent psychologists in the USA led by Professor Roy F Baumeister concluded that self-esteem might be as much the disease as the cure.
On reviewing the research, they decided that there was no connection between self-esteem and academic achievement, and that, contrary to the received wisdom, there was a positive correlation between self-esteem and bullying.

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