28 January 2002
Old Grumpy hears that the ruling Independent Political (sic) Group Junta have discovered a new weapon in their war on democracy.
For those of you who are fortunate enough never to have witnessed a council meeting first hand, I should explain how the system works.
There is an agenda and each agenda item is accompanied by a report and a recommendation from the relevant director.
Usually, a member from the ruling group will move that the recommendation be accepted and one of his henchmen will second the motion.
If the opposition don't agree they can either put forward an amendment or simply try to negative the proposition.
Sometimes the opposition might have no serious disagreement in principle with the proposition, but may seek clarification of certain points under Standing Order 10 (1) which provides: "A member of the Council may ask the Chairman of a Committee any question upon a report of a Committee when that item is under consideration by the Council."
In order to curtail this bothersome questioning the Independents have hit upon the brilliant (for them) wheeze of pressing the matter to a vote, when their 2:1 majority always carries the day.
Once the resolution, to approve the Director's recommendation, has been passed, the matter is no longer " under consideration by the Council." and anyone who then tries to ask a question can be ruled out of order and told to shut up.
Such is democracy in Republica Pembska.
Not only do the ruling Politburo have no time for free and open debate, judging from the letter from their LEADER, Cllr Maurice Hughes, in last week's Mercury, neither do they have much enthusiasm for the idea of free speech.
Cllr Hughes wrote in to complain about two stories that had appeared on the front page of the previous week's Mercury.
One, which he declared, imperiously, was "not worthy of comment", I will return to later.
The other carried the headline "The buck stops with PCC" and concerned the recent announcement of the amount of money the Council will receive next year from the Welsh Assembly.
This is 8.5% - five times the rate of inflation - more than they received in the current year and our two local Labour representatives Jackie Lawrence MP and Dr Richard Edwards AM sought, not unreasonably, to take credit for their government's generosity by pointing out that The County Council had no excuse for either increasing the level of Council tax or cutting services i.e. "The buck stops with PCC".
THE LEADER'S reaction to this entirely factual piece of reporting was to write a vitriolic letter to the editor which began: "I am constantly amazed by the ability of your editorial staff to distort almost any story into an attack on Pembrokeshire County Council."
Cllr Hughes; soon to be the most powerful politician in Pembrokeshire (the unelected Mayor?), should try to understand the crucial distinction between fact and comment and, failing that, he should consider leaving writing to the press to the experts in the Department of Marketing and Communications.
Council Tax spin
Old Grumpy also notices that, in his letter to the Mercury, Cllr Hughes makes his annual boast about the level of Council Tax in the county.
"Our Independently-controlled council also has the second lowest Council Tax in Wales", he writes, adding for good measure: "we already have one of the lowest Council Tax rates in the Country".
As I have pointed out on several occasions, the level of Council Tax is not a reliable indicator of either value for money or efficiency.
That is because local authorities have two ways of extracting money from the residents in their area: Council Tax and charges.
For instance, according to the latest figures available to me, it costs £85.00 to carry out a land search in Pembrokeshire compared to £48.00 in Denbighshire, which means that house buyers in the county pay an extra £37.00 to the council.
If the cost of a school meal is £1.20 in one county and £1.30 in another it means the parents in the second area are paying an extra £18 per year (more if they have multiple children).
There are a hundred-and-one of these charges ranging from taxi licences; through collection of garden waste and the cost of school meals; to charges for use of sports centres, all of which fall on the local population.
Unless we have the information to enable us to compare these charges, one authority with another, then crude comparisons of levels of Council Tax are utterly meaningless.
Oh, yes he was -oh, no he wasn't
Needless to say, I cannot agree with Cllr Hughes that the other story on the front page of the Mercury is "unworthy of comment".
This, you may recall, was about the absence/presence of the council's Head of Marketing and Communications, Dai "Spin" Thomas (January 21) at a meeting between Cllr Hughes and Cllr Mark Edwards.
The reason this is important is that, as Mr Thomas himself says, it would have been "inappropriate" for him - a council officer - to participate in what was a purely party political matter.
Cllr Hughes insists that Mr Thomas did not take part in the meeting, Cllr Edwards is adamant that he did.
Applying the Aristotelian principle: that two contradictory propositions can't both be right, we can safely conclude that one or the other is not telling the truth.
Which one, we may never know.
However, it does raise interesting questions about Cllr Edwards' future in the Independent Political (sic) Group.
From Cllr Edwards' point of view, can he remain in a political "party" whose leader has called him a liar?
And, equally, can The Leader tolerate having someone in his party who has publicly questioned his veracity?
My moles tell me that there is serious disquiet among some of the more conscientious members of the Independent Group about both Cllr Edwards' case and the recent shenanigans concerning Cllr Brian Hall's bogus expense claim.
There is even talk that some of them might jump ship and form another Group, but with ten £22,000 a year Cabinet posts, plus eight lucrative chairmanships (£17,000) and the same number of vice chairmanships (£13,000) in the gift of the ruling Independent clique, Old Grumpy is not expecting any dramatic developments this side of Easter.
Last week's row over the NHS, in general, and Mrs Rose Addis, in particular, makes me wonder whether we will ever have a rational discussion on this subject.
Without breaching medical confidentiality, I can tell you that, just before Christmas, my 87 year-old father-in-law fell and suffered a fracture and was promptly admitted to Withybush where they kitted him out with a new hip joint.
I am happy to say that the treatment he received was absolutely first rate and he is now back on his feet and well on the way to a complete recovery.
But, as they say, every silver lining has a cloud.
No doubt, somewhere in the County, there is someone whose hip operation was cancelled at the last minute because of Sam's emergency admission, as happened to a friend of mine on three occasions.
Needless to say, their view of the NHS will not be as rosy as mine.
But, anyone who expects perfection, from an organisation, with a finite budget, manned by mere human beings, and which treats several million patients a year, is living in a fools' paradise.
If you stir the cesspool vigorously enough, the s*** will eventually rise to the surface.
(Old Cumberland saying)
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