January 23 2007

Rules is rules

It is always heartening to come across evidence that the UK is still the constitutional democracy under the rule of law for which so many lives were sacrificed during the Second World War.
So, while the police knocking on the door of Downing Street aide Ruth Turner at six in the morning may be a bit theatrical for some tastes, it shows clearly that the Met is determined to carry out its constitutional duty by investigating the case without fear or favour.
What makes the case so dangerous for the government is that Ms Turner was arrested on suspicion of perverting the course of justice by providing false or misleading information during the "cash for honours" investigation.
Contrast that with what happens in Pembrokeshire.
Back in May 2002, I complained to the Ombudsman that county council deputy leader John Allen-Mirehouse had failed to declare a pecuniary interest during a debate on the "homes for locals" policy at a meeting of the National Park committee..
Failure to declare a pecuniary interest being a criminal offence, the Ombudsman passed the matter over to the police.
That was in July 2002, and 13 months later, after I had written several letters to the police asking what progress was being made, I received a letter in reply telling me that their enquiries had "only recently commenced in earnest".
More than a year after that, on 27 September 2004, the Ombundsman wrote to me to say that he was discontinuing his investigation on the grounds that Cllr Allen-Mirehouse had no interest to declare because "He has stated [to the police] that he has not applied for permission to develop any land and there is no evidence that he has any land which would be affected by the adoption of the policy on development in the National Park."
That prompted me to visit the National Park office at Llanion, where, within half an hour of my arrival, I turned up two applications by Cllr Allen-Mirehouse's agents, both dated 4 July 2002 (a year before the police investigation started in earnest) to have land he owned included within the Angle village plan.
I sent these documents to the Ombudsman who reopened his investigation with the result that in December 2005 the Ombudsman published his findings that Cllr Allen-Mirehouse had breached five separate paragraphs of the Code of Conduct.
This report was sent to the Adjudication Panel for Wales for final determination and, almost five years after my initial complaint, the issue is still not resolved.

Groomed for stardom

This week's Sunday Telegraph jobs' section carried a large advert for a new chairman of the Milford Haven Port Authority to succeed Bob Clarke who is due to retire "in the summer".
This is all rather peculiar because the Department for Transport (DfT) document Modernising Trust Ports (MTP), which sets out the guidelines under which bodies such as MHPA should be governed, stipulates that "The board should clearly identify and groom a successor to the chairman in good time".
So why is MHPA looking for a replacement at this late hour?
And why is the post being so widely and expensively advertised when MTP states quite clearly that "Chairmen appointed by the board, should normally have served first at least one term as a board member."
Old Grumpy suspects that another requirement of MTP that: "The chairman should also be subject to an absolute maximum of 12 years service on the board in whatever capacity" (MTP emphasis) has something to do with it.
I notice that Mr Clarke was appointed chairman in April 2000 and that his current four-year term should therefore expire in 2008.
However, come April this year, he will have served seven years as chairman and, according to MHPA's annual report, he was an oil industry representative on the board "on a number of occasions in the '80's and '90's".
My guess is that he has already comfortably exceeded the 12 year "absolute maximum" and, in view of the recent controversy involving the reappointment of Danny Fellows and John Allen-Mirehouse, the DfT has told MHPA to put its house in order.
As vice-chairman, Mr Fellows was presumably being groomed to succeed, but with the Welsh TUC kicking up one hell of a stink about his reappointment as the representative of organised labour, more than two years after his retirement from the TGWU, that would hardly be judicious.
Still, Danny's on nearly every quango going, so he won't be short of things to do.

On approval

Last Friday's meeting of the county council's corporate governance committee debated two notices of motion regarding members travelling expenses.
Members are only allowed to claim for expenses incurred while on "approved duties" and both NoMs sought to clarify exactly what that term meant.
Cllr Rhys Sinnett asked for "clear and transparent guidance" on the subject, and I had submitted a NoM requiring that the definition should be that in "The Local Authorities (Allowances for Members of County and County Borough Councils and National Park Authorities) (Wales) Regulations 2002 (2002 Regs).
Now you might think that requiring a local authority to adhere to the exact wording of a Welsh Assembly statutory instrument was a bit of a no-brainer, but this is Pembrokeshire County Council where the writ of the law doesn't always run.
Old Grumpy's interest in this subject goes back a long way, to 2000, in fact, when Cllr Brian Hall threatened to sue me after I wrote an article in the Mercury drawing attention to his unorthodox expense claiming practices.
This concerned seven journeys he had made from his home in Pembroke Dock to county hall to "Meet R B-E re Pembroke Dock museum" and other similar activities.
At that time, the statutory rules were contained in the Local Authorities (Members' Allowances) Regulations 1991 now replaced in much the same terms by the 2002 Regs.
These regulations list the "approved duties" for which a member was entitled to claim expenses.
In the main, these regulations are statements of the obvious; including things like attendance at council meetings and seminars, and the attendance of council nominees at meeting of joint committees.
Clearly, the purpose of these regulations is to limit the occasions when members can claim.
For instance, if a member drives to county hall to discuss the state of the pavements in his ward with an officer in the highways department, that is not an "approved duty".
However, both the 1991 and 2002 regulations contain a certain degree of flexibility with the provision that an approved duty will include "(h) any other duty approved by the body, or any duty of a class so approved, for the purpose of; or in connection with, the discharge of the functions of the body, or any of its committees or sub-committees."
And I knew that the body [the council] had never approved such duties as "Meet R B-E re Pembroke Dock museum".
At this time we had sold the Mercury and I was working for the the new owners Newscom Ltd who engaged London solicitors to handle the case.
Letters flew back and forth between Pembroke Dock and the metropolis and eventually Cllr Hall's solicitors produced a letter from Bryn Parry-Jones in which he drew attention to a resolution of a council meeting in July 1995 which had redefined (h) above as "Attendance by the Leader of the council and other group leaders (or their nominated representative(s)) at such meetings approved by the Chief Executive for the proper discharge of the business of the authority."
And, said Mr Parry-Jones, as the then Leader, Eric Harries, had nominated Cllr Hall to attend these seven meetings, and he, the Chief Executive, had given his approval, they were approved duties.
The London solicitors wrote back asking for evidence of these nominations and approvals; the minutes of the meetings attended by Cllr Hall and questioning whether the council had the power to vary statutory regulations, and all went quiet.
In order to protect myself from future threats of legal action, I wrote to the District Audit Service (DAS) seeking clarification of the rules and after a protracted correspondence they drew my attention to the council's members' expenses scheme for 2000/2001 which defined an approved duty as: "At the request of the Chief Executive: The Leader or other group leaders (or their nominated representative(s)) to attend at such meetings for the proper discharge of the business of the authority."
This was yet another change in the rules because not only was the Chief Executive to give his approval but he was to initiate the process by making a "request".
And, according to the DAS, the Chief Executive's powers went even further because I was informed: "The council confirm that the travel and subsistence expenses in question incurred by Cllr Hall are based on the final bullet point [2000-2001 scheme above] in that the Chief Executive nominated Cllr Hall (to be the representative of the Leader) to attend these meetings for the proper discharge of the business of the authority . . . "
So, the poor old Leader didn't even get to nominate his own representative
That would seem to give the Chief Executive unlimited powers to authorise members to drive around at 50p a mile in direct conflict with the clear intentions of the statutory regulations.
I wrote to the DAS pointing out that, even if I accepted that the council had the power to pass a resolution varying the wording of a statutory regulation, it must be the case that the 1995 resolution of council could only be varied by a further resolution, and, as no such resolution had ever been adopted, the 2000-2001 members' expense scheme was without legal force.
This point seems to have been conceded, though not openly, of course, because there is no mention of the 2000-2001 scheme in the report to last Friday's corporate governance committee.
My interest in this matter was reawakened when Mr John Hudson sent me a copy of a letter he had received from the DAS.
Like Old Grumpy, Mr Hudson takes a close interest in the authority's accounts and and is a regular visitor to the council's offices during the public audit inspection.
Also, like me, he was particularly interested in certain of Cllr Hall's claims (See Brian's taxis) (Duty bound) and took up the the question of the definition of "approved duties" with the DAS .
In reply, DAS told Mr Hudson: "The definition is clearly set out in the Regulations and it would not therefore be appropriate for the council to make any further definition."
Which, unless I've missed something, is remarkably similar to what I have been saying all along.
I read out this passage to the corporate governance committee, but the zombies in Independent Political Group, who are programmed to vote against anything proposed by the opposition, rejected both NoMs.
Fortunately, there is never any shortage of new material to fuel this particular fire.
Recently, I obtained Cllr Hall's expense claims from the fire authority, of which he is chairman.
It seems that, during the financial year 2005-2006, taking the county council and fire authority together, he covered a total of 30,000 miles on the public's behalf.
His claim for July 18 2005 provides a clue as to how this colossal mileage was achieved because, on that day, he racked up 179 miles for travelling to a fire authority lunch at the Royal Welsh Show in Builth Wells.
On the same day he also claimed 170 miles from the county council for a return trip to um, er, Builth Wells.
A textbook case of double-entry bookkeeping, I suppose.

Grantrepeneurs


Early in 2005 the county council's Cabinet approved a £10,000 marketing grant to a company called All Purpose Finance Centre Ltd, that had set up in Cedar Court on Milford Docks.
Being the inquisitive sort, I ran a check on Companies House website where I found it was run by a husband and wife team from the west Midlands.
Why would a financial services company from the Midlands want to relocate in Milford Haven, I asked myself.
I also obtained a copy of the company's grant application through Freedom of Information and discovered that the company had also lined up loans of £20,000 from Pembrokeshire Lottery and £100,000 from Finance Wales, an offshoot of the Welsh Assembly.
In exchange for this public largesse the company was promising "24 well-paid jobs"
One to watch, I thought.
A few months ago I tried the firm's phone number and got the recorded message: "The number you have dialed has not been recognised".
Neither was there any sign of the company on the Companies House register, which was rather strange because it contains details of dissolved as well as active companies.
As luck would have it, I was sorting through a pile of papers this morning when I came across details of the company; downloaded from the Internet at the time of my initial interest.
These included the company number (4652569) and when I entered that at Companies House I discovered that soon after the grants were approved the company had changed its name to A.P. Professional Marketing Ltd and decamped to Bristol.
So much for the 24 well-paid jobs in Milford Haven.
Or anywhere else for that matter, because alongside the company's name are the words: "in liquidation".
We do not know how much, if any, any of this grant money was drawn down, but thanks to FoI we soon will.

Paper tigers

Jeff Dunn's piece in last week's Mercury reported on the excitement in Milford Haven following the launch, in 1952, of the town's own weekly newspaper, the Haven Reporter.
Sadly, despite the initial enthusiasm, the paper folded after just 16 editions.
This took Old Grumpy back to 9 October 1992 when the Grumpy family launched the Mercury on an unsuspecting world.
It wasn't long before the Western Telegraph tried to run us out of town.
Firstly they opened an office in Charles street - something they claimed they had been planning for a long time, though nobody believed them.
The next move was the launch of a free sheet - the Milford Messenger - nicknamed the Messy after one Mercury reader wrote in to tell us it had proved invaluable for wiping up after her new puppy.
Old Grumpy wrote a little sketch which featured the Telegraph staff singing the company song each morning before starting work.
Sung to the tune of the Red Flag, it went

Oh Telegraph we vow to thee,
To preserve thy monopoly.

Oh Telegraph our task will be,
To keep thee competition free.

The Messenger proved to be an expensive failure and the Telegraph battle bus entered the fray.
This used to arrive in Milford each week and distribute free crisps and biscuits to anyone buying a Telegraph.
That, too, ceased, after I put it about that people were binning the Telegraph and keeping the crisp packets because the list of ingredients made for more interesting reading than anything they could find in the paper.
Next the Telegraph forked out £35,000 for the bare title of the now defunct West Wales Guardian and relaunched the paper with a great fanfare.
Unfortunately, the paper was filled with puerile rubbish, including a dog as an agony aunt, and soon after leaving the slipway it was holed below the waterline and sank, taking large quantities of the Telegraph's treasure to the bottom.
As you can imagine, we weren't very popular with Wales' biggest selling weekly snoozepaper and, when Old Grumpy was part of team that won the team of four championship at Haverfordwest Bridge Club, only three names appeared in the Telegraph.
So much for impartial, accurate reporting!
PS. I may be being unfair to the Telegraph here because this victory was achieved despite my going down in what should have been an ice-cold slam.
So, I can't entirely rule out the possibility that my partner had some part to play in this omission.

Falling standards


The furore about Big Brother only serves to show how far standards have fallen in the past 60 years.
I can just about remember the Brains Trust in which a panel of thinkers, including Julian Huxley and the philosopher professor C E M Joad, answered listeners' questions on the great issues of the day.
Unfortunately, Joad was disgraced and had to leave the programme.
Below is an account of his downfall.
In April 1948, Joad was convicted of travelling on a Waterloo-Exeter train without a valid ticket. This made front-page headlines in the national newspapers, and the fine of £2 destroyed all hopes of a peerage and resulted in his dismissal from the BBC. The humiliation of this had a massive effect on his health, and he soon became bed-confined at his home in Hampstead. His fame and broadcasting career were over.