4 January 2005

 

Red herrings

 

I have only made one New Year resolution: to be more resolute in my efforts to make Pembrokeshire County Council "open, honest and accountable", as the Leader puts it.
That means that I will not allow myself to be knocked off balance by the the Independent Political Group's attempts to howl me down.
Over Christmas, I read Francis Wheen's How mumbo jumbo conquered the world, and an excellent little book by Jamie Whyte: bad thoughts - a guide to clear thinking which have convinced me, if I wasn't convinced already, that the tactics used by my enemies have a long and not very distinguished pedigree.
One favourite trick is to try to put your opponent in the wrong by talking about something entirely off the point.
So we have the Leader quoted in the Mercury as saying: "It is clear by this result [of the vote at December's council meeting] that the vast majority of county councillors are fed up with issues that belong to the past.
"In the new year there are issues of great concern and interest that require the resolve of the council. Affordable housing and the level of council tax are just two of the many issues that concern the people of our county."
The implication being that if I would just shut up about Brian Hall's expense claims, and his dodgy dealings with Dr Michael Ryan, the council could knock 10% off council tax and fit everyone up with a £50,000 three-bed detached house.
And, of course, concern about the level of council tax and a belief in honest government are not mutually exclusive.
In fact, the Leader has a 38-22 majority at his command and can put through whatever proposals on council tax and affordable housing that he likes.
Unfortunately for the Leader, unlike the sheep in his Independent Political Group, I am not that much impressed by what "the vast majority of county councillors" might think.
True, whatever the majority can be persuaded to vote for is what gets done, but that doesn't mean the majority is always right.
What goes on inside Pembrokeshire County Council might pass muster in a banana republic but, as citizens of the world's oldest democracy, we have a right to demand higher standards than that.
And it is my intention, whatever the opposition, to do everything in my power to see that that is what we get.
And if the Leader really wants to put these issues in "the past" all he has to do is answer my questions rather than strewing the path with red herrings.

A right to know?

 

The Freedom of Information Act came into force on New Year's day.
Opinion is divided as to the extent that the Act will fulfill its purpose of more open government.
One thing that is demonstrated by the almost eight years between Labour coming to power in 1997 and the Act's implementation is that political parties are far more enthusiastic about freedom of information when they are in opposition.
Myself, I am pessimistic about the probability that the Act will lead to greater openness.
Firstly, the act is peppered with qualifications and exemptions, some absolute and others subject to "the public interest test".
And who will decide when it is in the public interest to withhold the information?
Why, the authority, of course.
As a council briefing paper tells us: "This requires the authority to make a judgment about the public interest."
The danger is that, as it always has done in the past, the authority will judge that the public interest is the same as its own.
Indeed, the authority can use the public interest test to determine whether or not to confirm or deny that it even holds the information.
And then there is Section 36 which allows a "qualified person" - defined in Wales as including the council or an authorised officer - to decide whether the disclosure "...would or would be likely to inhibit free and frank advice or the exchange of views for the purpose of deliberation."
It will be interesting to see what wonders of the art of creative thinking are deployed to squeeze things into that definition.
The other reason for my pessimism is past experience.
Back in October 2002, I asked for information that I was expressly entitled to have under the Audit Commission Act 2000.
For more than six months the council tried to hide behind the Data Protection Act even though I pointed out that the DPA contained an express provision which removed protection from any information which was in the public domain by virtue of any other enactment i.e. Audit Commission Act.
It was only after I threatened legal that they coughed up (see The long wait).
On the positive side of the equation we have the Campaign for Freedom of Information and several powerful daily newspapers who will all be keen to make sure that the bureaucracy is not allowed to neuter the Act.
And there is the added safeguard that an independent Commission will have the power to compel local authorities and other public bodies to provide the information if the Commission comes to the view that disclosure would best serve the public interest.
An early test will come with my request for copies of two letters referred to by the Leader at the last meeting of full council which the authority has hitherto refused to disclose.
The first; from Chief Superintendent Paul Amphlett of Haverfordwest police, detailed the strenuous efforts the police had made to investigate my complaint about Cllr Brian Hall's unorthodox expense claiming practices.
Unfortunately, the Leader read only extracts from this letter and some sceptics wonder if he might have been quoting selectively in order to bolster his case for sweeping the matter under the carpet.
Old Grumpy would also point out that the police are not altogether disinterested parties in this matter because at an early stage in the investigation a senior officer tried to fob me off will a cock and bull story that the police had no powers to investigate unless they had a complaint from the council (see The untouchables).
The second letter was from Cllr Brian Hall's erstwhile business partner Dr Michael Ryan who was complaining that Cllr Michael Williams and I were harassing him and that the resultant stress was affecting the health of himself and his family.
This is the same Dr Michael Ryan, who, less than a year ago, was trying to bully Cllr Williams and myself into silence about his relationship with Brian Hall with threats of legal action issued through a firm of Cardiff solicitors.
Along with the usual demands for an apology and retraction, the solicitor's letter required that each of us should "... reimburse our client, via us, his legal costs to date in the sum of £3,295.57 (VAT incl) together with additional expenses to be confirmed by our client shortly."
These demands were accompanied by what appeared to be official court documents bearing the words "Damages will exceed £5,000 but will not exceed £15,000"
Rather than send them a cheque, I forwarded a copy of Dr Ryan's fax to Cllr Hall dated 16 October 2000 in which was set out their plans to use their public positions to clean up in Pembrokeshire (see Hall-Ryan) and a letter informing his lawyers that I would be using this fax as evidence should Dr Ryan decide to sue.
Strangely, despite having been "cleared" of any wrongdoing by the Audit Commission in Wales, Dr Ryan seems to have decided to swallow the solicitor's bill for six-and-a-half grand and forgo all those lovely damages, rather than have his activities examined in the High Court.
I suppose the real mystery is why Dr Ryan is still employed by the County Council as a £450-a-day economic development consultant even though his fax to Hall clearly shows that he was planning to breach his promise, given just six weeks earlier on 3 September 2000, not to trade in Pembrokeshire.
Indeed, so well advanced were some of these plans that I wouldn't be surprised to find that Hall and Ryan were already plotting to to fill their boots in Pembrokeshire when the letter of 3 September 2000 was written.
I have also asked the County Council when it will be convenient for me to go to County Hall to inspect the file on ORA International Ltd's (Man Director Dr M Ryan) contract with the authority.
When I made a similar request in the early autumn, I was told that the file was closed to me because I couldn't demonstrate "a need to know".
However, Lord Faulkner, the Minister for Constitutional Affairs, told Radio 4 on New Year's day that, with the coming into force of the Freedom of Information Act, the "need to know" had been replaced by "the right to know".
We shall see!

 

Brass tax

Last week's Mercury carried a front page story headlined "5% council tax rise likely".
Underneath was written: "Pembrokeshire County Council is likely to increase its demand on the council tax payer by five per cent next year."
The information on which the piece was based is in a report on the 2005/2006 budget to next week's Cabinet meeting , which shows that a tax on a Band D property is set to rise from £541 to £569 an increase of 5%.
However, this is not the whole story.
In fact the council's "demand on the council taxpayer" for next year is £27.85 million compared to £24.66 million in the current year - an increase of 13%.
The reason the council can raise 13% more money from a mere 5% increase in Band D tax is to be found in the recently completed rebanding exercise which has seen the council's tax base (the number of Band D equivalent properties) rise from 45,512 to 48,943 - an 8% increase.
So, making comparisons between this year's band D rate and that for next year is like comparing apples and pears.
A better indication of the true nature of the increase is obtained by dividing last year's gross takings from council tax (£24.66 million) by the current year's tax base (48,943) which gives a band D rate of £504.
This correction for band-inflation shows an increase from £504 to £569 - 13%.
Alternately, you can divide last year's tax base (45,512) into this year council tax take (£27.85 million) to get a corrected figure for band D of £612 which gives the same 13% increase.
Whichever way you look at it, the headline figure of 5% is a gross underestimation of the actual increase.
This discrepancy is due to the fact that approximately one-third of the county's households have gone up one band or more.
Someone who has moved from band D to band E will now have to pay £695 - an increase over what they paid last year as a band D household of £154 - 28%.

Waiting for Robbo

This space reserved for the replies from Cllrs Bill Roberts and Islwyn Howells. See letter

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