January 3 2006

email: oldgrumpy.mike@virgin.net

Local boy makes good

The Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, can expect a fairly rough ride when he appears before the Constitutional Affairs select committee later this year to account for his office's poor performance in dealing with appeals against refusals to provide information to members of the public.
Old Grumpy has some sympathy with Mr Thomas because the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act on 1 January 2005 was almost bound to bring forth a flood of pent up enquiries.
And, as the early decisions will constitute a body of case law which will form the precedents on which later appeals will be determined, it is understandable that he and his officers want to ensure that their findings are robust enough to stand the test of time.
However, what is surprising is how few appeals had been received - 2000, of which more than half are still awaiting a final decision.
A few weeks ago I reported the Leader's answers to my questions on FoI requests (see Enquiring minds) which revealed that Old Grumpy leads the field in Pembrokeshire.
Well, it's all well and good being a big fish in a small pond, but what the figures reveal is that with two appeals currently under consideration, Old Grumpy, who makes up just one forty millionth of the UK's adult population, is responsible for one thousandth of the Commissioner's caseload.
Which - as the mathematicians among you will have already worked out - means that, nationally, I am punching an impressive 40,000 times above my weight.
Indeed, so impressive, I am thinking of writing to ask if this achievement can be included in the Chairman's announcements at the next meeting of full council.

First blood

At a recent council meeting, the leader, Cllr John Davies, was heard to boast that the authority had never had one of its decisions on the Freedom of Information Act overturned on appeal to the Commission..
That is hardly surprising, considering that so few appeals have been determined.
In any case, I have a feeling that it is all about to change because, just before Christmas, the Information Commissioner wrote to tell me that he hoped to resolve one of my appeals "early in the new year".
From what I gathered from the tone of his letter, a positive outcome is likely.
Another candidate for Chairman's announcements, perhaps!
A full report will follow in due course.
Not so lucky is Cllr Michael Williams who is still waiting for a determination of an appeal that was lodged back in February 2005.
He had asked the county council for the list of "completed projects" that accompanied the application by Cllr Brian Hall's erstwhile business partner Dr Michael Ryan, for the post of economic development consultant.
The county council refused and Cllr Williams appealed.
His appetite for information on Ryan having been heightened after the good doctor threatened to sue him, Cllr Williams was eager to see what resemblance, if any, there was between the list of completed projects submitted with the application and that which appears on Dr Ryan's company's website www.oriain.com.
Unfortunately, what appears on the website is, to say the least, vague, consisting as it does of a list of cities in which Dr Ryan claims to have "completed major projects".
Clearly, short of wandering the streets of Kuala Lumpur, San Francisco, or wherever, asking: "Ever heard of Dr Michael Ryan?" there is no way of establishing if any of these claims are true.
Cllr Williams hoped that the list that came with his application might be a little more specific and, therefore, more amenable to checking.
Interest in this subject was first aroused when I logged on to Dr Ryan's website and found him boasting of a "successfully completed major project" in Pembrokeshire.
When extensive enquiries into the possible location of this major project failed to come up with an answer, several of my associates emailed Dr Ryan seeking guidance.
Not only did these emails go unanswered but the website disappeared from cyberspace for "reconstruction" and when it reappeared a few weeks later the Pembrokeshire project had gone awol.
It is difficult to understand why the county council should be so eager to keep this information under wraps on the grounds of "commercial confidentiality" because, at the foot of the list of the world's great cities, where the results of Dr Ryan's major projects are allegedly to be seen, the website carries the legend "Comprehensive list of Clients and Projects available upon request."
Strangely, several requests for this list have also failed to bring forth a response from the secretive doctor..
Were I a little less naive, I might begin to suspect that someone has something to hide.

Interesting questions

Old Grumpy reads in the paper that Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse intends to mount a legal challenge to the Ombundsman's finding that he breached the Code of Conduct.
As I understand the situation, this will involve Judicial Review.
It is heartening to learn that the ruling elite's views on this process have changed since his party leader [Maurice Hughes] branded the Council for National Parks' decision to subject the planning consent for the "Bluestone" development to Judicial Review as "a disgrace".
As a consistent fan of the rule of law, I fully supported the CNP's right to pursue its grievance through the courts and I fully support Cllr Allen-Mirehouse's right to seek to have the Ombudsman's findings overturned.
After all, nobody's infallible - not even the Ombudsman.
And, of course, it is hard to beat a hearing before a High Court Judge when it comes to ferreting out the truth.
Perhaps we will discover just why the police were so eager to drop the case without making even the most cursory attempt to establish the facts.
Indeed, if the Fraud Squad was a racehorse, the trainer and the jockey would be up before the stewards as "non-triers" (see also The Untouchables for another instance where the police didn't give the punters [taxpayers] a decent run for their money).
It strikes Old Grumpy that when the police become a servant of the government, rather than the impartial instrument of law-enforcement, you are well on the way to a police state.
But easily the most interesting aspect of the Ombudsman's report, which I am sure the men in wigs will wish to examine minutely, is the role of the county council's Monitoring Officer at the time of these events.
According to the Ombudsman, the Monitoring Officer, in an email to the police dated 12 November 2003 - why a formal statement wasn't taken is not explained - confirmed that Cllr Allen-Mirehouse had sought his advice "shortly before the meetings of the Council [28 February 2002] and its policy and resources committee [14 February 2002] as to whether or not he should declare a pecuniary interest in relation to consideration of a policy of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park on new housing development within the National Park" and that he had advised him that "having regard to [his various interests in the Angle area] and that as the forthcoming debate was about a policy issue and not any particular areas of land, I did not consider he had a pecuniary interest to declare. It seemed to me that even if he did have an interest it was so remote or insignificant that it could not reasonably be regarded as likely to influence him and that, the exemption contained in Section 97(5) of the Local Government Act applied."
There are several issues arising from this, including:
(1) The meeting of the National Park where this policy was first debated was held on 23 January 2002, three weeks prior to the first county council meting on 14 February 2002.
As this was a National Park policy that was up for debate, it would seem that, if Cllr Allen-Mirehouse had concerns about a possible conflict of interest, his first port of call should have been the National Park's Monitoring Officer.
But, as the Ombudsman says in his report: "I note that Cllr Allen-Mirehouse failed to seek guidance from the Monitoring officer of Pembrokeshire Coast NPA."
(2) It seems strange that the county council's Monitoring Officer and top "trained lawyer" should draw a distinction between a debate on "a policy issue" and a debate on "particular areas of land".
While it is true that an interest based on a particular area of land is more clear-cut, there is nothing in the Code of Conduct to indicate that a member is relieved of the duty to declare an interest merely because it involves a "policy issue".
Indeed, as the Ombudsman observes, at the meeting of the National Park dated 23 January 2002, Cllr Allen-Mirehouse did record such an interest in respect of an item headed "Tourism policies".
As it happens, I was present at the county council meeting on 28 February 2002 and noticed some rather strange goings on with respect to Cllr Pat Griffiths.
So strange, in fact, that I wrote an account of it in my next column on 4 March (see Self interest).
It is not immediately clear why Cllr Griffriths should find it necessary to declare an interest on a "policy issue" when Cllr Allen-Mirehouse was free of any such obligation.
I also notice that Cllr Griffiths was present at the meeting of the policy and resources committee on 14 February 2002 when the "homes for locals" policy was discussed, though she didn't declare an interest on that occasion.
It would be interesting to know what happened during the intervening two weeks to convince her that her ownership of development land in the National Park constituted a declarable interest.
3. And what is perhaps most difficult to understand is why, according to his email to the police of 12 November 2003, in February 2002, the county council's Monitoring Officer offered Cllr Allen-Mirehouse advice under the Local Government Act 1972 when that had been superseded by the Local Government Act 2000 and the county council had adopted the new Code of Conduct just a few months earlier on 18 October 2001.
As the Ombudsman says "The specific question to the Monitoring Officer, and the advice in response, were therefore inappropriate."
It will be fascinating to see what m'learned friends make of it all.

Chinese puzzle

According to reports in the media, the Chinese economy has now overtaken that of the UK; pushing us into fifth place in the world league table.
While this may well be true, it is also highly misleading because the statistics referred to are for Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
And, as China's population (1.3 billion) is some 21 times greater than ours, it means that, given a rough parity in GDP, the average citizen of China is 20 times less well off than the average citizen of the UK and, even with double-digit growth rates; five times the rate of ours, it will be an awful long time before emigrating to China becomes an attractive proposition for most of us.
This huge disparity in per capita incomes has an important bearing on the subject of global warming, and the Kyoto accords designed to counter it, because the world's two most populous and fastest growing economies: China and India, are not part the greenhouse gas reduction targets.
They both argue, with impeccable logic, that it is not their emissions that have caused the problem,so why should they have to bear the burden of putting things right.
Which brings us to what might be called the 70:30 question - the fact that 70% of fossil fuel related carbon dioxide is produced by the developed industrialised nations (USA, Europe and Japan, in particular) which only make up 30% of the world's population.
Clearly, there is no reason why these nations should not take most of the pain.
The difficulty is that, even at the present levels, unsustainable quantities of carbon dioxide are being pumped into the atmosphere.
But even to stabilise emissions, while ensuring fair shares all round, would require the advanced industrialised countries to reduce their fossil fuel use by some 60%.
We can nibble at the edge of this problem with wind farms, hydro-electric schemes, tide-driven turbines, wave machines and energy conservation measures but not even the most optimistic tree-hugger would suggest that these are enough to provide a long-term solution.
The fact is that energy-dependent economies simply can't make huge cuts in fossil fuel use without either finding some reasonably reliable and affordable alternative (nuclear?) or cutting economic growth.
That is why, despite all their pious words, all the countries of the EU, with the exception of the UK and Sweden are on course to miss even the modest greenhouse gas reduction targets in the first Kyoto agreement.

Sic(k) Joke

My socialist friend has again taken me to task over some of the spelling in this column.
"A few weeks ago, you were boasting that you had done hard sums at university", he says, "but don't you think it might have been better if you'd spent some time with a dictionary."
His particular beef is my practice of referring to the county council's ruling clique as the Independent Political (sic) Group (IPG).
"You must surely be aware", he grumbles, "that there is a 'k' on the end of the word in brackets."
I'm afraid I have to correct my socialist friend.
Old Grumpy went to one of those wonderful grammar schools where, until the class warriors in his party abolished them, poor working class boys and girls could get a rigorous classical education.
There I learned that "sic"; usually in brackets, is a Latin word employed to denote the fact that what is written; in this case "Political", is the term actually used.
I think my socialist friend also knows this and the point he is trying to make is that, to stand as an independent and then join a political party once the votes are safely in the bag, is to play a sick joke on the electorate.
I couldn't agree more, and, in order to encapsulate both meanings as economically as possible I will, in future, always use the form (sic(k)) when discussing this subject.

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