June 17 2008

False premise

Continuing with last week's numeracy theme, at a recent seminar on the county council's Code of Conduct I manoeuvered the discussion around to the origins of the Independent Political Group and was pleased to hear the joint deputy leader of the IPG, Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse, confirm that its formation was in response to Jackie Lawrence's announcement, at the first meeting of the newly constituted Pembrokeshire County Council, that Labour's 14 members would sit as a group.
Cllr Allen-Mirehouse also expressed the erroneous view that, had the IPG not been formed, Labour would have been the biggest group and, as such,, would have dominated the council.
I was rather dismayed to learn that this entirely fallacious view is also held by people who are not members of the IPG.
Now, you may wonder by what process of arithmetic 14 members can dominate a council of 60.
But, when I made this point, I was told it was not a matter of arithmetic but a matter of the law because, as the biggest group, Labour would have been entitled under the political balance regulations to a majority of seats on all committees..
Having gone to the trouble of reading these regulations (several times) I can say this isn't true either.
According to the regulations, a 'political group' comprises two or more members who give written notice of their wish to be treated as a group.
And "Members of an authority are to be treated as divided into political groups when there is at least one political group in existence."
So the council would be treated as politically grouped if there were 58 independent independents (non-grouped) and two members of the Monster Raving Loony (MRL) group.
And in that case,while the MRL would be the biggest group, nobody would suggest they would be entitled to a majority on every committee.
The confusion arises because the failure to distinguish between 'biggest' and 'majority'.
What the regulations actually say is that in in determining the distribution of committee seats: (b) "that the majority of seats on the body [committee] is allocated to a particular political group if the number of persons belonging to that group is a majority of the authority's membership."
Clearly, that wouldn't apply to either the 14-strong Labour Group, or the MRL.
If there is no majority group then regulation (b) is redundant and the seats are distributed strictly in accordance with the rules of proportionality set out in (c) and (d) of the regulations.
So, had the IPG not been formed, the 42 non-grouped members: independent independents (4) and 'independents' (38) on the council would be entitled to roughly two-thirds of the seats - almost exactly as they are now.
Cllr Allen-Mirehouse claimed that having a majority group made the council easier to administer.
This is undoubtedly true because, if the Chief Officers Management Board (COMB) can rely on the Leader to instruct his troops at the IPG's secret pre-meeting group meetings to vote for whatever COMB is proposing, it does away with all that messy debating and uncertainty.
Whether that was what the voters had in mind when they put their crosses next to people with "independent" after their names, is another matter.

When the dissing had to stop


One troubling aspect of the new Code of Conduct is the requirement that councillors treat people, including fellow members, with respect.
This causes problems for this column.
Previously, I could hide behind the Livingstone/Hall precedent i.e. this is written in my private capacity, but the new Code has closed off that loophole.
So, I was eager to discover how the Monitoring Officer' interpreted this part of the Code.
From what I could gather, it would not be permissible to call another member an idiot because that would be a general statement about his mental capacity.
It would, however be alright to describe what someone had said as "idiotic" because even non-idiots can make idiotic statements.
Less clear is whether 'only an idiot would say that' would pass muster, though, as it implies that the target must be an idiot, perhaps not.
Similarly, calling someone a liar implies a general course of conduct while, providing you had evidence to back it up, an accusation that someone was lying in a particular instance does not.
A veritable minefield.
However, I am encouraged by the standards committee's findings in the Brian Hall case because it held that, while Cllr Hall was acting in his private capacity, even if he had been acting in his official capacity, to find him guilty of bringing the office of councillor into disrepute would be an unwarranted interference with his right to freedom of expression (Freedom to threaten).
So, if it is OK to issue threats to have your gangland friends break someone's arms and legs, anything I might say will surely pass the test.
But there is a serious aspect to this freedom of expression business.
There is a long-standing democratic right to speak freely provided you stop short of incitement or defamation.
In the case of councillors, the courts have decided that it is even more important that they should be able to speak their minds and the right has been extended by qualified privilege which applies to anything said in a council meeting.
The leading case on this subject is Horrocks v Lowe in which a conservative councillor in Bolton sued his labour opponent over critical but inaccurate remarks made during a council meeting.
According to my battered old text book on constitutional law "The House of Lords held that however prejudiced the defendant had been, or however irrational in leaping to conclusions unfavourable to the plaintiff, he honestly believed in the truth of what he said, and the defence of qualified privilege succeeded."
So, if I express my honestly held belief during a council meeting that one of my fellow members is an idiot, I am protected from an action for defamation but guilty of failing to show respect under the Code.

Dead letters


I notice another four letters in the Western Telegraph from supporters of Cllr Ken Rowlands' decision to defect from the Labour Group and join the IPG.
This all smacks of an orchestrated campaign by Cllr Rowlands' friends.
My understanding is that the WT has received letters putting the other side of the argument, though none have so far appeared in print.
I am reserving judgement until I have sight of this week's paper, but, if these other letters don't put in an appearance, I will have to conclude that Wales' biggest selling weekly snoozepaper has transformed itself into the Ken Rowlands' fanzine.
If these letters are excluded from this week's paper, I will publish them next week.
There are two questions Cllr Rowlands and his chums need to answer:
(1) Why didn't he tell the Labour Group that he intended to defect in time for them to appoint another candidate? and
(2) Why, in view of his past criticism of the IPG did he join that party rather than sit as an independent independent?
One of these supporting letters was from our old friend ex-councillor Eddie Setterfield who wrote: "I have never been a political camp follower, I have always voted for the person who I thought would help our county and not run around the flag poll for their political party.
It was a very sad day when we ended up with political parties fighting at County Hall instead of shouting in tune for the rest of us."
Reading that you might find it difficult to believe that Eddie was a founder member of the Independent Political (sic) Group.
Leaving aside the fact that you sing in tune and shout in unison, this statement is part of the IPG's theme song: that we should all be working together for the good of Pembrokeshire.
Which, roughly translated, means we should all be singing their tune.
Looking across the IPG benches, I can't think of any obvious reason why they should be more likely than the rest of us to hit the right notes .
PS If the WT doesn't print these letters setting out the counter arguments tomorrow, I will put them on next week's website.

Early warning

As someone who has benefited enormously from the Welfare State, it is not easy to criticise the system.
Born in 1940, I was one of the first people to be educated under the 1944 Education Act which provided me with a state-funded university education that my parents certainly couldn't have afforded to pay for.
This legislation was passed while the UK was engaged in a long and bloody war and it struck me from quite an early age how lucky I was to be born in a country where, despite more pressing matters, politicians still found the time to promote such enlightened policies.
However, there are aspects of the Welfare State which politicians of all parties agree are in need of reform.
Of these, perhaps the most pressing is to find a way of providing a safety net without encouraging welfare dependency.
Interestingly, the architect of the Welfare State, Sir William, later Lord, Beveridge, was aware of this potential problem.
In his report he wrote:

Most men who have once gained the habit of work would rather work – in ways to which they are used – than be idle ... But getting
work ... may involve a change of habits, doing something that is unfamiliar or leaving one’s friends or making a painful effort of
some other kind.
The danger of providing benefits which are both adequate in amount and indefinite in duration is that men, as creatures who adapt themselves to circumstances, may settle down to them."

According to Sir William: "It was necessary, therefore, to enforce the citizen’s obligation to seek and accept all reasonable opportunities to work and to cooperate in measures designed to save him from habituation to idleness."
So, there is nothing new in the present government's proposals for some sort of 'workfare'.
The only question is why it has taken them more than 60 years to wake up to Beveridge's words of warning.


Matching up


My question about the sweets (Sweet reason) has led to a lively e-mail correspondence.
And, it would seem, there are more potential IPG members out there than I had suspected.
One family, which includes two maths teachers and a computer specialist apparently had a five minute debate on the subject (even though they had been told the answer?) and a financial advisor e-mailed to say that the question was meaningless because I hadn't specified the total number of sweets in the bag.
There is some validity in this last point, but not in the way our pensions expert suggested because, as long as there are sufficient sweets of each colour to meet the worst case scenario - 4x2 and 1x3 in this case - the answer is the same regardless of the total number of sweets in the bag.
So, if there were 10,000 treacle toffees, 2 mints, 2 caramels, 2 chocolates and 2 jelly babies in the bag, you would still need to take out 11 sweets to be certain of having three of the same kind.
My financial advisor suggested that this was a puzzle rather than a maths question, though I prefer to describe it as a mathematical puzzle.
It is a variation on the old one about the sock drawer during a power cut.
There are six pairs of differently coloured socks in the drawer - what is the minimum number you have to take out to be certain of having a pair?
Answer: 7, because, if you haven't already taken out a pair, the seventh must match one of those previously withdrawn.
The general principle can be represented by the formula n(x-1) + 1 where n = number of varieties and x = the number of matching items required.
Substituting in the case of the sweets we have 5 x (3 - 1) + 1 = 11.
With the socks we have 6 x (2 (pair) - 1) + 1 = 7.
Try it out on the following example.
There are 10,000 balls - 500 each of 20 different colours - in a (very large) bag.
How may balls would you need to remove to be certain of having 60 of the same colour?
Actually, the answer is the same as if there were 59 of nineteen colours and 60 of the other in the bag.
Which is, incidentally, a clue to a method of arriving at the answer without resort to algebra.
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