July 9 2001


Fools and our money......


Now that I am retired, my attendance at council meetings is not as regular as it used to be. But, last Thursday, I decided to toddle along to County Hall to listen to the debate on the latest episode of the saga of the chief executive's pay, which like Topsy, just grows and grows.

The story begins in 1995, when Mr Parry-Jones joined the authority on £63,000 a year plus 10% of his salary to lease a car. Within a few weeks of his appointment, he presented a report to members about the remuneration levels of the soon-to-be-appointed directors. "A scale of £50-£55,000 (plus 12.5% of salary to lease a car) was identified as the least in order to compete effectively," he told the members, who predictably did his bidding.

In addition to the salary scale, our elected representatives also resolved that, "as a matter of policy", directors' remuneration should not exceed 77% of the chief executive's.

The result was that, almost before he had time to have his nameplate fixed to his office door, Mr Parry-Jones had trousered a £1,500 a year pay rise.

By 1998, Mr Parry-Jones had climbed the two rungs of the salary scale which, together with the usual cost of living increases, had taken his pay well above £75,000 (plus 10% car leasing).

Then, in April 1998, it was agreed, after a heated debate behind closed doors, to introduce a revised scale for the chief executive of £83,715 - £87,900.

Prior to the meeting, prominent members of the ruling Independent Political (sic) Group, put it about that failure to cough up would result in the chief executive decamping to greener pastures with the European Commission, Welsh Office, or Whitehall, depending on who you were listening to..

This, the story went, would lead to the collapse of civilisation as we know it, with famine and pestilence stalking the county in the absence of His guiding hand.

Reports of the secret debate, relayed to me by one of my most reliable moles, had the leader, Eric Harries, telling his troops: "If it hadn't been for him [B P-J], Pembrokeshire would be in a dire state."

Chairman Peter Stock opined that "The only way Pembrokeshire will ever become the Premier County again is through this man," and the vice chairman Bryan Phillips intoned: "He is our insurance policy and we must keep paying the premiums."

Even the leader of Plaid Cymru, Rev Aled ap Gwynedd, got caught up in this Bryn-the-Saviour hyperbole. "This is the only man who can reverse the decline in Pembrokeshire," he solemnly declared.

The alarming thing is that they all believed what they were saying.

All I can say is that Mr Parry-Jones has been in power for six years and I can't see he's made a blind bit of difference.

On a happier note, I would point out that two of these sycophants - Harries and ap Gwynedd - failed to persuade the voters of their own indispensability at the 1999 election, so were unable to contribute to last Thursday's debate. Not that their absence made any difference, because the Independents used their huge majority to vote through the increase - hiking his salary to £99,708 (backdated to Jan 1 2001 and rising to by five increments (10%) to close on £110,00 by 1 January 2005. [Latest update. During these five years, the Chief Executive will also have been entitled to the annual rises paid to all staff, taking his salary to in excess of £120,000, prior to the present rise. The higher figure of £130,000-£140,000 given in last year's accounts is for total taxable immoluments including any payments received in respect of car leasing.]

Taking candy off babies is like plaiting sawdust compared to persuading the Independents to part with our money.

Reports on last Thursday's proceedings are rather slow coming in but, as often happens, a copy of the confidential papers put before members, by Head of Personnel Francis Maull, has appeared on Old Grumpy's doormat.

According to the report, if Mr Parry-Jones worked in a comparable position in the private sector, his 'base salary median' would be £118,628 (with bonuses £134,073).

According to this view, we are getting the great man on the cheap. However, as I have pointed out on several occasions previously, comparisons between the public and private sectors are worthless.

It may well be that if Mr B P-J was running a private firm with the same "turnover" as Pembrokeshire County Council (£170 million) he would be paid considerable more.

But that is because in the private sector any cash at his disposal would come from customers who had a free choice whether or not to purchase whatever goods or services his company was offering.

In the public sector, his organisation's income comes from taxation which we are all obliged to pay, under pain of imprisonment, whether we like it or not.

Readers may remember that, some years ago, Mr Maull produced a report justifying the high salaries paid to council staff on the grounds that the extra spending power so created gave a boost to the county's economy.

As I pointed out at the time, collecting taxes from the people to pay local authority staff more that necessary creates nothing except unfairness - they have more income at their disposal and we have less.

Mr Maull's report on the chief executive's pay contained a similar piece of flawed economic thinking.

After raising the spectre of Mr Parry-Jones leaving ("should we be in a position of recruiting a new individual to the post, we would need to look nationally for candidates, throughout the UK"), the report concludes: "A further reduction in median salary to reflect a lesser Welsh level would not be appropriate given the market place in which we operate."

This is pure rubbish because it assumes that the potential candidates will not be numerate enough to work out that a lower salary in Pembrokeshire, compared to say Surrey or Wiltshire, will be more than offset by the lower cost of living - housing in particular.

For instance, where else could you buy a five bedroom mansion in its own extensive grounds for £120,000, as Mr Parry- Jones did four or five years ago.

As usual, the minority groups on the council proposed that the debate should be held in public.

This was little more than a token gesture because the Independents were always going to use their large majority to vote the proposition down.

The law on this subject is to be found in Section 100 of the Local Government Act 1972, which provides that the council "may" (my emphasis) go into private session to discuss certain categories of "exempt information" one of which is staff pay.

So, the members have a discretion.

But that is not how it was put to them by the chairman, Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse.

He said: "The legal advice is that we have to go into private session."

The council's top lawyer, director of support services, Huw James, then chipped in with the observation that the matter under discussion fell within one of the "exemption categories" (which was true) but made no attempt to correct the Chairman's complete misrepresentation of his "legal advice" before Cllr Allen-Mirehouse concluded the debate with the assertion: "We are required to go into private and confidential."

Unfortunately, nobody on the opposition benches had the wit to question the Chairman's flawed interpretation of what the law actually says.


Easily confused

It seems that Cllr Allen-Mirehouse may have some problem getting his head around the distinction between a discretion and a duty because, in another debate on the proposed reorganisation of local government he fell into exactly the same trap.

The issue here was whether the council should make its preferred option known to the public when it goes out for consultation on the matter later in the summer.

The point being that such a statement of preference might influence the public's view.

Cllr Allen-Mirehouse stated: "We are compelled to state our preferred option by the Welsh Assembly" (a duty).

Chief executive Bryn Parry-Jones begged to disagree.

The council was "free to express its preference for a particular option," he said, "but it is entirely up to you [the members]" (a discretion).

To which the chairman replied: "It's quite complicated, actually."

Well it may be complicated to you John, old chap, but I suspect that most people will have no trouble drawing the distinction between "compelled to" and "free to".

It was left to Plaid leader Michael Williams to sum matters up.

According to Cllr Williams, the ruling Independent group is held in such low esteem by the voters that "whatever view they [The Independents] take, the public will go for the opposite".

Stock phrases!

Since giving up the Chair three years ago, little has been heard of Cllr Peter Stock apart from a couple of forays as a leading light in the "bungalow farming" wing of the Independent group (Enfield and Slade Lane Haverfordwest).

However, a brief intervention in a debate on the Welsh language demonstrated that his vast treasury of cliches is far from exhausted.

Praising the council's efforts to accommodate the Welsh language, Cllr Stock observed: "We've moved in leaps and bounds and I am pleased we have reached this particular point in time."

I am sure we are all pleased to have "reached this particular point in time".

It is what divides the living from the departed.

Though, as several members of the Independent Group appear to be dead from the neck up, this point may be lost on them.

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