22 July 2003
The parallels between New Labour's culture of spin and what goes on in the County Council are striking.
Like Mr Blair's government, the County Council seems to have lost the ability to tell the truth.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the council's attempts to gloss over the wholly inappropriate business relationship between cabinet member Cllr Brian Hall and its £450-a-day economic development consultant Dr Michael Ryan.
As regular readers will know Dr Ryan and Cllr Hall are the sole shareholders and directors of Euro-Ryall Ltd, a company they incorporated on 29 December 2000 just four months after Dr Ryan was engaged by the council.
The council, embarrassed by the existence of the clear conflict of interest arising from this relationship, has devised a three-pronged strategy to deflect criticism.
Firstly it claims there is no conflict of interest because of the existence of a "contractually enforceable" agreement that the company will not trade in Pembrokeshire.
As I have already demonstrated, the notion that the council has a contractually enforceable agreement with Hall and Ryan is pure moonshine (see Con tract).
The second leg of the council's case is that the company has never traded.
Even the council realise that, while that explanation might satisfy members of the Independent Political (sic) Group and certain fellow-travellers from the opposition parties, it won't pass muster with anyone with a functioning brain because Euro-Ryall Ltd was, presumably, set up for a purpose other than to give Hall and Ryan something to put on their CVs.
Not that the CV-boosterism scenario should be altogether discounted because my mole in Pembroke Dock tells me that Cllr Hall is Chairman of the Board and Director of Marketing, while Dr Ryan doubles up as Chief Executive Officer and Deputy Chairman.
In any case, my mole tells me, there was every intention to trade in Pembrokeshire and that the two of them hoped to muscle in on a big development involving the owners of the Cleddau Bridge Hotel.
The only reason they didn't trade in Pembrokeshire was that the deal fell through.
Completing the triumvirate is the council's claim that the company has been dissolved.
Cllr Michael Williams, Leader of the Plaid Cymru group on the council, tells me he has received three emails from the council on this subject.
The first, dated 21 May 2003 told him that, according to information in the council's possession, "the company has been dissolved."
A month later, on 19 June 2003, Cllr Williams received a second email in which it was claimed that Cllr Hall had told the council that the company had been dissolved and that he had produced "a letter from his advisors which appeared to suggest that that was the case."
And on 3 July 2003 the council wrote "Regarding the dissolution of Euro-Ryall Ltd, [we are] informed that the dissolution process is likely to be concluded shortly and that the application for striking off the company from the register had been submitted earlier this year."
Clearly, somebody isn't telling the truth..
In addition, on 11 June I received an email from the Vice Chairman of the Economic Development Scrutiny Committee, Cllr Ken Edwards, in which he said: "A phone call from the Leader [Cllr Maurice Hughes] of the Council informed me that the company had been wound up."
Why do council officers and elected members have to rely on conversations with Cllrs Hall and Hughes, and documents from these mysterious "advisors", when, as I did this morning, they can spend five minutes logging on to www.companies-house.gov.uk where they will find Euro-Ryall Ltd is still listed as an active company?
What is true is that on 2 April 2003 - coincidentally, a week after the appearance of "Cutting a dash" - Hall and Ryan applied to have the company struck off.
But, for obvious reasons, directors can't have companies struck off on demand.
The proposed striking off has to be advertised in the London Gazette so that interested parties have the opportunity to oppose the application.
Indeed, that is what seems to have happened in this case because, according to Companies House: "Action pursuant to Section 652A of the Companies Act 1985 for the striking off and dissolution of the above company [Euro-Ryall Ltd] has been suspended as an objection has been received by the Registrar."
I understand that this objection was registered on 13 May 2003 and that it is standard procedure for the Directors to be notified of such a development (see email 19 June above)
And, in an email dated 21 July, Companies House informs me that "This company has not been struck off ...".
But the mystery remains: why go to all the trouble and expense to set up a company only to try to close it down two and a half years later?
After all, as Dr Ryan wrote to the County Council's Head of Marketing David Thomas on 3 September 2000, explaining the decision to set up Euro-Ryall Ltd: "It is common practice for Consultancy Companies such as ORA International to establish a base within a new market territory upon obtaining a high profile contract."
Well, he still has the high profile contract, so why now wind up the company?
Too high a profile, perhaps!
PS. the company was actually struck off on 24 January 2004.
Last Thursday's meeting of the County Council; played out in front of a public gallery packed with Johnstonians protesting about plans to site a waste recycling plant in their midst, was a lively affair.
Unfortunately, the Notice of Motion concerning the Johnston business was near the end of the agenda and, as the meeting went on to nearly six o'clock, it was not surprising to find the Johnston contingent reduced from over 50 at the start of proceedings to half a dozen stalwarts at the end.
Old Grumpy would have thought that, as a matter of courtesy, this item could have been brought to the top of the agenda, especially as the Independent Political (sic) Group had decided at their secret cabal the day before that the Notice of Motion was to be remitted to Cabinet without debate, so that the people of Johnston who were hanging on to hear their concerns discussed were waiting in vain.
Despite all that, there were some entertaining moments with Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse again proving to be the star of the show.
During a debate on the "Corporate Improvement Plan" Cllr Terry Mills asked about something called "Team Pembrokeshire", which, judging from his tone, he did not hold in very high regard.
Sneerhouse thought he had spotted a long-hop and was on it like a flash.
"I have listened to the councillor's rantings ..." he started but before he could dispatch the ball to the boundary he was interrupted by a volley of boos and catcalls from the public gallery.
Bravely, he pressed on (playing fields of Eton, and all that) accusing Cllr Mills of "knocking Pembrokeshire" by failing to commit himself to something known as "the 'Team Pembrokeshire' approach", which, he said "involved working together as a County Council".
Roughly translated, this means letting The Cabinet have its own way.
Cllr Michael Williams (Plaid) speaking from the perspective of "seventh reserve" wondered how "Team Pembrokeshire" fitted in with recent events which involved the Director of Marketing and Communications, David Thomas, forwarding an email he had sent to the council to Dr Michael Ryan, together with the less than helpful advice that Cllr Williams' words were "Not only offensive but also libellous"
Dr Ryan was evidently impressed with Mr Thomas's legal opinion because he promptly contacted his solicitors and is now threatening to sue.
"Would the Chief Executive tell me how that will improve team morale?" Cllr Williams asked.
But Mr Parry-Jones met this googly with a straight bat..
"He [Cllr Williams] has given me notice that he is submitting a complaint on this issue and it would not be appropriate for me to comment" said the council's leading strokemaker.
Making it up
Old Grumpy is struck by the cavalier way the ruling Independents have with facts.
This is his Deputy Leadership Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse responding to a complaint by Cllr Bill Philpin that many members found themselves marginalised under the new arrangements.
"We now work under the Cabinet system which was imposed on us [by the Welsh Assembly]."
Then after a brief dissertation on the powerlessness of the smaller parties ("I sympathise with Michael Williams (Plaid) who is a member of a group of two"), he repeated: "Remember this has been imposed upon us."
This is so far divorced from reality as to be breathtaking.
The Local Government Act 2000 gave the County Council four options: a Mayor, elected on a county-wide franchise, working with a cabinet selected from the elected members; a Mayor with council manager (Chief Executive); the existing Leader with Cabinet system ; and the so-called "Fourth Option", introduced by the Lib Dems in the Welsh Assembly, which would have had a committee structure not too dissimilar to the old system.
The Leader with Cabinet that we now have was imposed on us not by central government but by the ruling Independents.
The reason they were so keen on that set-up was that they realised that if a Mayor was elected on a county-wide franchise it would not be one of them.
And few of the present Cabinet would have been chosen for high office by an elected Mayor worth his salt.
So, in order to maintain themselves in power, they mounted what was, in essence, a coup.
And then there was the arch-truth bender - His Leadership himself - telling the meeting: "We are criticised for being undemocratic but it is the 60 members who make policy" and just in case we hadn't heard him first time: "At the end of the day it is the 60 members who make policy."
"Oh, no they don't!" someone called from the public gallery in (mock?) pantomime fashion, and they were right.
In actual fact, none of the 60 members make policy - they merely vote to endorse whatever the Chief Officers Management Board (COMB) puts in front of them.
And, because of the way the system works, as few as 20 members can control the outcome of the vote.
That is because on the day before meetings the Independent Group holds a secret meeting to decide the party line.
If, at this caucus, 20 of the 39 Independents approve of something, the vast majority of the rest go along with it
An emailer has complained that this column is concentrating too much on politics at the expense of gardening.
"Since you posted your winter planting scheme on the web(see Gardeners' delight) there has been not a single word about your horticultural activities", he writes.
"Slugs eaten everthing, or what?" he taunts.
Which provides me with a wonderful opportunity to tell you about my melon plant.
Growing melons is a bit of a specialist activity because of the difficulty in getting the fruits to set.
In previous years, I have had a fair bit of success - 15 melons from two plants last year - but 10 days ago, with this season's speciman almost up to the apex of the greenhouse, there was no sign of action.
Pollination is rather a delicate operation (you might like to consider whether you want your wife or the servants to read this) which involves pulling off a male flower, slowly stripping off the petals and poking the naked anthers into the centre of the female flower.
Having carried out this ritual every day for a fortnight, without any sign of success, I was on the point of uprooting the plant in despair.
After all, every time I went into the greenhouse to water the tomatoes (tremendous crop), cucumbers (hanking) and sweet peppers (ship-sinking quantities) there was this melon staring at me and shouting "FAILURE!".
Then one day, while I was pottering about in the shed I came across a small bag of rose fertiliser that Old Grumpette had received as a freebie with some bulbs she had bought.
Desperate situations call for desperate measures, so it two big handfuls around the base of the plant, watered in with a gallon of double-strength "Tomorite" and we haven't looked back since.
Eight fruits have set already and there are plenty more flowers coming higher up the plant.
I only hope the greenhouse roof is up to the job of carrying the weight.