17 June 2002

Party animal?

One of my cyber chums has sent me a 1999 county council election address.
Clearly the candidate is one of those who do not believe that political parties have any part to play in local government.
Part of this election puff is in the from of a question and answer session e.g.
Q "You're not a member of a political party?"

A "NO - I represent our town. I'm not willing to put my hand up when I'm told to. We've got too many group members doing as they're told - too much politics and too little action."

And just to emphasise the point: "If you want someone to join a political party group, to just sit there and put their hand up when they're told - I'm not your man."
The writer of this windy guff, if you've not already guessed, is Cllr Brian Hall, who was, and still is, a leading light in the Independent Political Group (its statutory title).
The Independent Political Group, like the Labour, Lib Dem and Plaid Cymru groups, has a secret get-together before every important council meeting to decide its stance on the various issues, or, more accurately, so that the Leader can convey to the assembled members the stance of the Chief Officers Management Board (COMB).
The upshot is that COMB's recommendations are invariably nodded through by the large Independent majority..
However, like all the best political propaganda, Cllr Hall's election address does contain a grain of truth.
He is right to say that he doesn't just sit there and do as he's told.
As the Independent Political Group's Chief Whip - known as "The Enforcer" by some of his colleagues - he is the one who does most of the telling.
And judging by the way the hands shoot up in unison - give or take the odd laggard who has to look around to see how the leadership are voting - he carries out his duties with exemplary efficiency and enthusiasm.
That, presumably, is why he has been elevated to the Independent Political Group's Cabinet.

Stamping grounds

Old Grumpy spotted a letter from Cllr Hall's Independent Political Group colleague, Cllr Anthony Wilcox, in last week's Western Telegraph.
Unfortunately, Cllr Wilcox letter, which gives a fascinating insight into Independent Group philosophy, was hidden away on page 31.
It was written in response to the paper's report, headlined "Power exclusion for 13 councillors" in which it was pointed out that 13 of the members had been denied a place on the four overview and scrutiny committees while six of the Independents were to serve on two committees.
Cllr Wilcox wrote in to say that exclusion from the overview/scrutiny committees did not mean that he was "powerless to make decisions" because he had been appointed to both the planning and licensing committees, which "are not directly under Cabinet control".
In fact, the councillor says, membership of overview and scrutiny committees is largely a waste of time because their role in the "overwhelming majority of cases" will be to "rubber stamp the cabinet's decision with little or no input from themselves".
If Cllr Wilcox really believes that these scrutiny committees are nothing more than cabinet-controlled rubber stamps, perhaps he can explain why he voted in favour of their chairmen being paid £17,500 a year and their vice-chairman £13,500.

In a spin

Old Grumpy has been immensely cheered this week as our boys have got stuck into the opposition and look ever more likely to get a result.
I do not, of course, refer to Beckham and Co - my soccerphobia is as bad as ever - but to the pack of investigative reporters on the tail of Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell.
For a political anorak like me, this past week has been pure joy.
This story has everything and will surely end up as a big screen blockbuster.
Clearly, as Northern Ireland Minister John Reid, who is routinely wheeled out to bully the press whenever the government is in trouble, told the World at One on Sunday, the subject matter of the Great Funeral Fiasco is trivial and a distraction from the government's mission to improve education, transport and the NHS.
Though Dr Reid didn't explain why such a minor matter had required top civil servants to make more than a dozen phone calls to Black Rod querying Mr Blair's role in the proceedings.
Or why Mr Campbell considered it so important that he found time to write two long letters to the Press Complaints Commission and produce a 29-page rebuttal document when the balloon looked like going up.
What has fascinated Old Grumpy is the way the truth has emerged, bit by bit, as "friends of Black Rod" have leaked details of the "killer memo" to the newshounds.
Compared to this, some of my own moles are beginning to look decidedly second rate.

Gone away!!

It would seem that the County Council has shot my fox by removing Cllr Bill Hitchings from the Standards Committee.
Regular readers will recall that, soon after his appointment to the committee, I drew attention to Cllr Hitchings' habit, going back to 1993, of claiming 24 miles for the return journey Ashdale lane - Haverfordwest, rather than the 12 it actually is, whenever he makes one of his frequent trips to London on the train.
Some years ago, during one of my annual trawls through the Port Health Authority books, I discovered claims submitted by Cllr Hitchings and the authority's Director David Rye for first class rail tickets to Hull when in fact they had travelled by car.
And on another occasion Cllr Hitchings had to pay back money expended on his wife during a taxpayer funded junket to Blackpool after another of Old Grumpy's expeditions into the murky world of members' expense claims.
It occurred to Old Grumpy that someone with Cllr Hitchings' cavalier attitude to expenses was hardly the obvious candidate to sit on the Standards Committee.
He was eventually removed because of a rule that not more than one member of the cabinet could sit on the committee and, as things stood, there were two: Cllr Hitchings and Cllr Brian Howells.
In the normal course of events, seniority would have prevailed and Cllr Howells, a relatively new boy, would have been asked to step aside.
But, for once, the sacred principle of Buggin's turn was not applied.
If I was of a Machiavellian turn of mind I might conclude that Cllr Hitchings' elevation to the cabinet was designed to facilitate his smooth exit from the Standards Committee.
It is difficult to think of a better reason for his inclusion until, that is, you consider the other talent on offer.

Snoopers' charter

I have just heard the welcome news that the government is to reconsider its controversial proposals to allow local authorities, among others, to monitor our e-mails.
Of course, supporters of the bill claim that the powers will be hedged around by legal safeguards, to protect the citizen.
Pesumably, they are proceeding on the basis that local authorities can be relied on to obey the rule of law.
I will be writing to Mr Blunkett's deparment, enclosing a large dossier of evidence to demonstrate that this is a heroic assumption to make about this particular neck of the woods.

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