21 January 2003
Home Office Minister Beverley Hughes was on World at One on Monday trying to explain away the cloak and dagger tactics used to purchase the Coniston Hotel in Sittingbourne for use as an asylum reception centre.
According to Ms Hughes this was all the fault of the National Asylum Support Service (NASS), which had failed adequately to consult with local people over the plans.
To reassure the good citizens of Sittingbourne, who are understandably annoyed at having this development thrust upon them without warning, Ms Hughes told the BBC that she had instituted a full inquiry into the NASS's conduct in this matter.
Later in the day, not to be outdone, Home Secretary David Blunkett was up on his feet in the House of Commons denouncing NASS's "incompetence" over the purchase of the property.
What appears to have been over-looked is that NASS is a Government agency under the control of the Home Office and, therefore, the buck stops with Ms Hughes and her boss David Blunkett.
The fact that they could so brazenly seek to shift the blame on to their own civil servants only goes to show how far down the sewer British politics has travelled since the days when Labour Chancellor Hugh Dalton resigned for inadvertently letting slip some minor details of the forthcoming budget, and Tory Agriculture Minister Sir Thomas Dugdale fell on his sword over the action of one of his minor civil servants in what came to be known as the Critchel Down affair.
And they wonder why only 59% of us turned out to vote at the last election!
Veteran campaigner Tony Benn was on the radio a couple of weeks ago debating the issues of the day with Tory Shadow Cabinet Member David Davis.
Naturally the conversation turned to the subject of public v private provision of services.
Mr Benn was on his usual sparkling form as he dismissed the Blairite notion that people are merely customers in a market place.
According to Mr Benn, we are citizens with rights.
Seductive as it is, there is, I think, one huge flaw in Mr Benn's analysis and that is the problem of enforcing those rights, especially against the sort of all-encompassing State that he would seem to envisage.
It is true, for instance, that we all enjoy the right to free health care but we do not have a right to decide where, when and by whom the service will be provided.
That is largely the State's prerogative.
However, in the matter of health care we are not entirely powerless because such a large proportion of the population use the service that any Government that fails to make adequate provision is likely to be out on its ear.
But there are many rights, so-called, where this is not the case.
Under the Audit Commission Act 1998, section 15:
15. - (1) At each audit under this Act, other than an audit of accounts of a health service body, any persons interested may-
(a) inspect the accounts to be audited and all books, deeds, contracts, bills, vouchers and receipts relating to them, and
(b) make copies of all or any part of the accounts and those other documents.
But what happens if citizens are denied the information to which they are legally entitled by virtue of this Act?
As inspecting the council's books is very much a minority sport, we can hardly expect the electorate at large to get into a lather about it.
Nor will the District Audit Service or the Ombudsman be of any assistance, so the citizen's only recourse is to the (vastly expensive) courts.
As the citizen will be using his own money and the Council will be using the citizens' money it is little wonder that such legal challenges are few and far between.
During the County Council's public audit last October my attention was drawn to the minutes of the meeting of the Property Management sub-Committee held on 19 September 2000.
At that meeting it was agreed to lease, at a rent of £9,000 a year, the industrial unit at 75 Stockwell Road Pembroke Dock to Mr Brian Hall, better known to readers of this column as Cllr Brian Hall, Cabinet member in charge of Transportation and the Environment.
According to the report to members, Mr Hall's intention was to run a mixed enterprise including minibus hire and Certified Bailiff and security services from the premises, creating four new jobs and 20 direct and indirect jobs within the first year.
It is standard practice for the Council to give all new tenants a three-month rent free period, but in Cllr Hall's case this was doubled to six months as compensation for repairs and improvements he was to carry out at his own expense.
These works are detailed in the report as: "overhaul the existing roof structure, repaint the exterior, remove obsolete fixture and fittings internally and provide a new electricity supply. In addition the lessee will provide gates and security fencing to the yard area."
All that for three months rent relief - a mere £2,225 - my word, these council officials strike a hard bargain.
But, only if the work is carried out as per the agreement.
A quick excursion over the Cleddau Bridge established that, two years on from the granting of the lease, the building remains unpainted and the security fence and gates are nowhere to be seen.
Naturally, it occurred to Old Grumpy that the principle no work - no rent relief should apply.
So, as provided by S15 of the Audit Commission Act 1998 (see above), I asked for details of all monies the Council had received [receipts] from Cllr Hall.
The original reply was that the Council had received no money from Cllr Hall "in his official capacity".
Slippery, or what?
Not wishing to get into an argument about semantics, I rephrased the question to include the words "Mr Brian Hall".
The Treasurer's Department then fobbed me off by claiming that what I had asked for was personal information and, therefore, confidential by virtue of the Data Protection Act 1998.
Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I was able to log on to www.hmso.gov.uk and read the Data Protection Act for myself.
At Section 35 I noticed:
Disclosures required by law or made in connection with legal proceedings etc. 35. - (1) Personal data are exempt from the non-disclosure provisions where the disclosure is required by or under any enactment (my emphasis), by any rule of law or by the order of a court.
The Audit Commission Act 1998 being the "any enactment" that removes the information from the umbrella of the Data Protection Act.
In any case, details of payments to or from the Council are not "personal information" otherwise I would not be able to freely look at invoices submitted by Cllr Hall's business partner Dr Michael Ryan and find that he was being paid £1,500 a month for 3 days consultancy services.
On 4 November 2002 I wrote to the Director of Finance pointing out that I had still not received all the information requested during the public audit.
With respect to the outstanding information about payments received from Cllr/Mr Brian Hall, I wrote:
(4) Details of all payments received from Mr Brian Hall.
Note: I do not accept your contention that this information is covered by the Data Protection Act 1998. (See S 34 and 35 and S 15 of the Audit Commission Act 1998)
In the event that you do not accept my interpretation of the two Acts cited above, could you please provide the name of your Data Protection Officer as I intend to seek an opinion from the Commission?
To date, I have received neither the information nor the name of the Data Protection Officer.
My next port of call was the Council's Monitoring Officer.
At this point I must digress to explain the role of the Monitoring Officer.
In an attempt to address the public perception that local authorities had a poor regard for the law the Thatcher government introduced the Monitoring Officer as part of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989.
The Monitoring Officer is, in effect, the authority's conscience and "is under a duty (my emphasis) to prepare a report to the authority whenever it appears to him that any proposal, decision or omission by the authority, or one of its committees, sub-committees or officers constitutes or may give rise to (my emphasis) a contravention of any enactment, rule of law or statutory code of practice "
Like much local government law, this enactment is blighted by subjectivity (whenever it appears to him) and in the seven years of the County Council's existence the Monitoring Officer has produced not a single report.
However, I had high hopes that I might provide him with the opportunity to get off the mark by bowling him a slow full toss so, on 28 November 2002, I wrote to him explaining that, in my opinion, the Finance Department was withholding information unlawfully, and drawing his attention to the provisions of the Audit Commission Act 1998 and the Data Protection Act of the same year.
He replied on 14 December telling me that the Director of Finance had asked him to "do some further research" into the issue "with particular reference to data protection and audit commission legislation".
Since then, silence.
What I find rather baffling is that, in previous public audits, when I have requested identical information about other individuals it has been supplied without demur.
Today (Tuesday) I made my debut visit to a meeting of one of the County Council's Scrutiny Committees.
Up to now I have always avoided these toothless watchdogs whose main function seems to be to keep members from hanging round street corners and snooker halls, while at the same time providing justification for the almost £10,000 a year which they are now paid.
Others, who have attended, tell me the meetings of these committees are terminally boring but, in the spirit of empirical enquiry, I decided to find out for myself.
Things got off to quite a bright start as Cllr Clive Collins presented himself before the committee to make a complaint "in the strongest possible terms".
It appears that Cllr Collins, a long-time member of the committee, had given up a morning's work to attend the meeting only to find that The Leader Maurice Hughes had dropped him in favour of Cllr Bryn Griffiths.
"Nobody has had the courtesy to inform me of this change - it's disgusting" Cllr Collins grumbled.
While Old Grumpy can see his point, the time for him to start worrying is when he finds himself airbrushed out of the Council photos.
There also seems to have been some skulduggery going on in Johnston where only six people turned up to board the 53-seater coach for a trip to Welshpool to inspect a waste recycling plant of the sort the County Council are planning for Arnold's Yard.
According to Director of Transportation, Huw Roberts, Johnston Community Council had indicated that 15 people had put their names down for the visit and had expressed the opinion that several more would turn up on the day - hence the 53-seater.
But, in the meantime, someone had circulated a leaflet encouraging villagers to shun the trip on the grounds that the County Council would regard attendance as tacit approval of the Arnold's Yard scheme.
I am not sure I buy into the logic of that, but it certainly seems to have been effective.
Whoever is the author of this leaflet had better watch out.
As Mr Roberts told the Committee: "We think we know who it was".