January 17 2006

email: oldgrumpy.mike@virgin.net

 

How would they know?

To mark the first anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act, the Western Telegraph kicked off the New Year with an editorial headlined: "What a con trick!"
According to Wales' biggest selling weekly snoozepaper the promises of "more open and transparent government" had turned out to be one of the "biggest con tricks since London Bridge was sold to a Texan."
Old Grumpy can't understand how the WT acquired all this expertise on the workings of the Act because, to the best of my knowledge, not a single story has ever appeared in that publication based on either information released under the Act, or on a public body's refusal to release such information.
But as I read the rest of the editorial it became increasingly clear that this was something dashed off during the office party after the editor noticed a blank space top left page 8.
The Telegraph claims that the Act makes accessing information "more difficult, time-consuming and frustrating" because it gives public bodies "a process to hide behind".
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Prior to the Act, public bodies could simply refuse to provide information; now they have to justify any refusal under the public interest test.
And any such refusal can be challenged through an appeal to the independent Information Commissioner.
Nor does the Telegraph's other claim: "That unless those attempting to access information stay within tight criteria for making a request, it can be turned down flat." bear any resemblance to what actually happens.
Indeed, under section 16 of the Act, public bodies are obliged to provide assistance to those making requests.
My own extensive use of the Act has turned up a couple of real gems (see Misinformation) and I have high hopes of even better things to come.
The Telegraph should give it a try.
I'm sure readers will find the results more interesting than an endless diet of county council press releases.

Ryan's dilemma

One document that I did obtain through use of the Act was a copy of a letter written by Dr Michael Ryan (remember he?) which was selectively quoted by the Leader of the council to ambush me during the debate on my notice of motion calling for the publication of an auditor's report into the good doctor's shady business relationship with Cllr Brian Hall.
In this letter, Dr Ryan complained to the council of harassment by myself, Cllr Michael Williams and another unnamed individual.
What Dr Ryan failed to mention was that, less than a week before Christmas 2003, he had instructed his solicitors to write to Cllr Williams and myself threatening to issue a writ in the High Court unless, within fourteen days, we apologised and paid him a considerable sum of money (£3,295 each) in respect of our alleged libels.
Given the difficulty of obtaining legal advice at that time of year, one can only assume that the timing of this letter was designed to exert the maximum amount of pressure (harassment?).
Unknown to Dr Ryan, I was in possession of a fax he had sent to Cllr Hall in October 2000 (see Hall-Ryan) which showed, beyond reasonable doubt, that the two of them intended to use their positions to trade in Pembrokeshire, contrary to Dr Ryan's written assurance to the council not so to do.
After a copy of this fax was conveyed to his solicitors, the threats miraculously dried up.
When I obtained a copy of Dr Ryan's letter to the Leader by way of the Freedom of Information Act, it made interesting reading.
In it he claimed that countering this harassment had cost him in excess of £14,500 in legal fees.
And, as an example of this supposed harassment, he accused me of "Constantly publishing false and unfounded allegations against [his] good name and reputation."
In addition "[I have] been subjected to a very rigorous investigation by your District Auditor and was found not to have done anything wrong".
But, surely, if my allegations were false and unfounded, and he had the District Auditor's word for it , he could kill two birds with one stone by suing me.
That way, these troublesome allegations would cease, and, as a bonus, he'd recover his fourteen-and-a-half grand.
Strange that someone with a PhD hasn't thought of that!
Then again, it may have calculated that certain inconsistencies in the "facts" in the auditor's report might not survive the sort of forensic examination commonly employed in the High Court.
For instance, how do you explain that, on 21 September 2000, according to the auditor's report, Cllr Hall sent a "private letter" to Maurice Hughes, informing him of his intention to go into business with Dr Ryan, though, according to what Dr Ryan told the auditor, his first ever contact with Hall was in early October 2000.
Perhaps someone concluded that calling Mystic Meg as an expert witness would be rather a risky strategy!.

Tax facts

 

This is the time of year when Old Grumpy finds himself telling readers the truth about the council tax.
Last year I explained how, due to rebanding, the council had managed to smuggle through a 13% increase in the amount of tax collected under the guise of a 5% rise in the band D rate (see Brass Tax).
This year the disparity between the two figures is not so dramatic - 3.85% and 5.9%, respectively - but it doesn't need to be because the money from last year is, as it were, already in the bank.
The fact is that, as a result of one-third of households being uplifted by one or more bands, the council's tax base has risen by 9.5% over the two years.
Which means that the council would collect an extra 9.5% in revenue even if the band D rate of tax remained unchanged.
However, because of a combination of the increase in the tax base and the increase in the band D rate the amount of tax taken from the people of Pembrokeshire has gone up from £24.66 million to £29.45 million a rise of almost £5 million.
In percentage terms, that represents an increase of 19% compared to a rate of inflation over the same two-year period of less than 5% - hardly the shining beacon of financial prudence that the council's spin-doctors would seek to portray.


All geared up

Yesterday I attended a seminar on the county council's budget during which the Director of Finance gave an very clear explanation of "gearing" as it applies to council tax.
In this context, gearing occurs because the bulk of the council's revenue (83%) comes from central government, while only 17% is raised locally by way of the council tax.
That means that a small decrease in the money from the central pot results in a large increase in council tax - in the above example a 1% shortfall in central funding leads to roughly a 5% increase in the council tax.
Indeed, as I've pointed out many times in the past, while the financial efficiency of a local authority has a significant bearing on the the level of council tax, by far the most important driver is the amount of money handed over by the the government.
Of course, gearing works both ways and a relatively small increase in central funding leads to a relatively large reduction in the council tax burden.
For the financial year 2006-2007 the Welsh Assembly has provided Pembrokeshire County Council with a 5.8% increase compared to a Welsh average of 5.1%.
I calculate that this 0.7 difference amounts to about £1million.
Had the council received only the Welsh average, that £1 million would have had to be raised from local taxpayers putting about £20 on the band D rate, or, put another way, it would have almost doubled the increase in the band D rate to 7%.
Naturally, our local leadership are keen to pass off modest rises in council tax as a function of their own genius rather than the generosity of central government.
However, over the coming years, as Mr Brown turns off the public spending taps in order to balance the books, and council tax has to rise to compensate, I fancy we will be hearing quite a lot more about this relationship between government grant and council tax.


Opportunity knocks

Old Grumpy has received a report on what has been achieved by the expenditure of large sums of Objective 1 money.
What it proves is that there is no end to the inventiveness of the social entrepreneur with his/her hand in the taxpayers' pocket.
One scheme I particularly liked was: "Complete Control Music" which is "a community based vocational training initiative, which will improve the employability of musicians, by providing practical training in recording, releasing music, live performance and associated skills, including marketing and entrepreneurship."
Just think what the Beatles might have achieved if they'd had that sort of help when they first started out.


X-File

 

Over the past couple of weeks I have written about Ombudsman's report on the strange case of the planning consent at 37/38 Prospect Place Pembroke Dock (see Think of a number).
Yesterday, I decided to have a look at the file to see if it might offer any clues as to what had really gone on.
Unfortunately, it seems the said file can't be found; it has just disappeared into thin air.
Curiouser and curiouser!!
I was also interested in another development in Pembroke Dock: the new four-star hotel near the dockyard.
A few weeks ago I read in the Western Telegraph that the developer was soon to start work with the intention that building would be complete in time for the high season.
Now, high season and Pembroke Dock are not phrases that I would normally associate with each other, but it occurred to me that this new hotel might offer me a non-flying alternative the next time I come under pressure from Old Grumpette to take her for a holiday overseas.
Imagine my disappointment to find that, with the high season only six-months away, the development still hasn't got planning permission.
I have now collected all the information I have on Enfield

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