8 July 2003

 

Still going strong

 

Unfortunately, Dr Ryan's solicitors have had me bumped off my Freeserve Internet site because of the allegedly defamatory remarks in my contribution of 20 May. Why they waited six weeks is something of a mystery.
However, as you can see, his attempt to silence me has been a signal failure.
This is not the first occasion that the enemies of free speech have tried to pull this trick (see Private and confidential and Certificate X).
On that last occasion, I was out of action for more than three weeks, but I am rather more clued-up about the Internet these days, so here I am back on stream in less than 24 hours.
Word reaches me through the usual channels that Dr Ryan might prove to be an even more formidable adversary than I first thought.
My mole in Pembroke Dock tells me that, in addition to the alphabet soup of qualifications which I have already catalogued, Dr Ryan's CV includes: former economic advisor to the Prime Minister of Malaysia and former scientific advisor to Nato.
What he is doing associating with Cllr Brian Hall, we can only guess.
But not for much longer, I hope.

 

Spending priorities

According to the Mercury, during the recent argument about the County Council's decision to cut funding for children's playgrounds, His Leadership, Cllr Maurice Hughes, pointed out that "... the County Council had no legal duty to provide play areas ...".
That is an interesting criteria for deciding spending priorities.
For instance the County Council has no legal duty to convey the Chairman and other notables about the place in a chauffeur-driven limo (estimated cost £25,000 a year).
Nor is there anything on the statute book that compels the council's bigwigs to head for the Stone Hall restaurant for a night out on the rates on the evening following the Annual General Meeting (cost £1,000).
And the council would be breaking no law if it decided there were better ways of spending taxpayers' money than sending Cllr and Mrs Bill Hitchings on what amounts to a free holiday at the Port Health Association conference each year (estimated cost £1,200).
Ditto, the £30,000+ the council spent last year on "civic and ceremonial" (formally Chairman's expenses) and the £10,000+ that went on hiring photographers to take the pictures which are used to boost the electoral prospects of certain members (all Independents) with regular appearances in the local papers.
Nor was it because of any legal requirement that the council paid public relations outfit Golley Slater more than £11,500 (including £1,500 design costs) to place two adverts for a Head of E Government in The Times, and a further £4,750 on advertising the same post in the Local Government Chronicle.
I could go on and on, but, to avoid boring you, I will draw a line by pointing out that councillors "had no legal duty" to vote themselves two massive pay rises; more than trebling the annual cost of councillors' allowances from £260,000, at the time of the last election in 1999, to £900,000 in the current year.

 

 

Above the law?

 

Old Grumpy is encouraged that His Leadership has grasped the idea that "legal duty" has a bearing on the council's actions.
It is a notion that some of the officers appear not to cleave to.
Way back in October, during the public audit inspection, Old Grumpy requested details of payments received from Cllr Brian Hall under the rights given me by the Audit Commission Act 1998.
I was particularly interested in the rent for 75 Stockwell Road, Pembroke Dock - an industrial unit he leases from the council.
The lease, signed in September 2000, allowed Cllr Hall a six month rent free period in respect of certain works he was to carry out on the site at his own expense.
These works have not been carried out.
Clearly, there is no shortage of barrack room lawyers among the bean counters in the finance department because, in response to my request, back came the reply: "No payments received from Cllr Brian Hall in his capacity as an elected member of the Authority."
So, I tried again by asking for details of payments from "Mr Brian Hall".
This brought the reply: "Disclosure of Personal Data not permissible (Data Protection Act 1998)."
My next stop was the Internet site (www.hmso.gov.uk) to check out the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA).
Interestingly, sections 34 and 35 provide that data which was in the public domain by virtue of any other enactment e.g. Audit Commission Act 1998, does not enjoy the protection of the DPA.
On 25 October - the final day of the public audit inspection - I sent a note to the Finance Department pointing out that S 34 and 35 destroyed their grounds for witholding the information requested.
Having heard nothing, I reitterated my interpretation of the DPA in a letter to the Director of Finance, dated 5 November 2002 and, when that failed to elicit a response, I wrote to the Monitoring Officer on 28 November 2002 drawing his attention to the Director of Finance's failure to comply with the law.
It took the Monitoring Officer until the 14 December 2002 to reply when he informed me that the Director of Finance had asked him "to do some further research in relation to the issues surrounding receipts concerning Councillor (???) Hall's tenancy with particular reference to data protection and audit commission legislation."
This research took the best part of three months and on 4 March 2003 the Monitoring Officer wrote to tell me "I have now concluded my enquiries into the legal position and am satisfied that you are entitled to the information requested."
Not that the council had done anything wrong in depriving me of my statutory rights for almost five months.
As the Monitoring Officer explained: "Although my enquiries have taken some time, I felt it was important to be absolutely certain that the release of such information was not going to cause subsequent difficulties in relation to the increasing sensitivity of sharing personal information in the context of data protection and human rights legislation."
So, that's all right then.
A couple of days later the Director of Finance sent me a letter with details of payments made by Cllr/Mr Hall and the dates on which they had been received.
Unfortunately, there was no record of the dates on which the debts had arisen, so, as far as I was concerned, some of the payments received during the financial year 2001/02 might have fallen due in the previous year.
What Mr Lewis' letter did reveal was that business rates (£4,089) had been paid on 2 February 2002 though half fell for payment in April 2001 and the balance in October 2001.
Old Grumpy wonders if all businesses in the county are afforded such latitude.
Anyway, I still felt that my right to inspect "the accounts of the body under audit and all related books, deeds, contracts, vouchers and receipts and to make copies of such documents." had by no means been fully met.
So, it was back to the word processor.
Mr Lewis replied that as far as he was concerned "... the information now provided has dealt with, in full, your specific request for information..." and Mr James that: "Your position does not appear to have been prejudiced by the delay."
Well, I would be the judge of that!
Several more letters passed back and fore, without any discernible softening in the council's position, until I decided to raise the stakes.
After consulting my solicitor, I wrote a letter to the Monitoring Officer on 16 June, which concluded: "... unless I receive a satisfactory response from you within the next forteen days it is my intention to instruct counsel to institute procedings in the High Court."
As Dr Johnston said: "The sight of the gallows concentrates a man's mind wonderfully", and in no time at all I had a full record of Cllr Hall's rent payments, though it is a poor lookout when the only way a "democratic" body like the county council, which owes all its powers to statute, can be made to obey the law, is by threats of legal action.
In a fully functioning democracy you might expect that our elected representatives would take an interest.
Sadly, not!



Hall's payment record

 Date  Debit  Credit  Balance
 17/04/01  £750    £750
 9/05/01    £750  £000
 21/05/01  £750    £750
 18/06/01  £750    £1,500
 18/07/01  £750    £2,250
 20/08/01  £750    £3,000
 14/09/01    £1,500  £1,500
 17/09/01  £750    £2,250
 15/10/01  £750    £3,000
 15/11/01  £750    £3,750
 17/12/01  £750    £4,500
 21/01/02  £750    £5,250
 22/02/02  £750    £6,000
 22/02/02    £1,500  £4,500
 11/03/02    £750  £3,750
 18/03/02  £750    £4,500

What this shows is that at the end of the financial year Cllr/Mr Hall was six months in arrears (seven months when the fact that the rent is due one month in advance is taken into account).
Those opposition members who are constantly prattling on about social justice, while sitting on their hands, might care to ask their council house-tenant constituents, what happens to them if they fall this far behind with the rent.
Still, must look on the bright side - only 12 weeks to the next public audit inspection.

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