June 18 2009




I was unable to attend Stephen Crabb's expenses confessional at the Picton Centre but I understand from the Western Mail that I missed the chance to see county councillor Danny "Quango" Fellows make a bit of an exhibition of himself.
The former trade union official was chosen to chair the meeting in order to give the proceedings an air of impartiality, though, as he is now a leading light in the Independent Political Group - Pembrokeshire's closet Tories - few were taken in by this piece of spin.
According to the Western Mail: "The ugliest scenes inside the Picton Community Centre in Haverfordwest came before Mr Crabb even entered the hall to face questions when Cllr Danny Fellows warned the 200 constituents of Preseli, Pembrokeshire, crammed inside the building: 'I can be very gracious and very nice, but I can be very firm and very stern if people get out of order. I'm putting some ground rules down so that everyone knows where they stand'."
And he banned questions he felt strayed from the expenses scandal and even threatened to have constituents thrown out by Dyfed-Powys Police which sent one inspector and three PCs to stand guard in the car park.
The newspaper reports that his warnings did not go down well with voters with one telling him, “You’re threatening us” and another branding him “arrogant”.
To which Cllr Fellows retorted: “I won’t have any more nonsense from you.”
Cllr Fellows is chairmen of the council's children and young persons overview and scrutiny committee, which, among other things, has responsibility for the county's education service.

Changing places


It is interesting to note what Mr Crabb had to say at various stages of the unfolding story about his second home.
Initially, he told the Western Telegraph that "Every decision I have made about accommodation as Member of Parliament has been made with the explicit guidance of the Fees Office. Indeed, the switch of my designated second home from London to the constituency in October 2007 was actually suggested to me by an official in the Fees Office."
However, at the meeting with his constituents when he realised that wouldn't wash he said: "I'm not here to blame the fees office, or blame the system or blame the advice."
He also told that meeting: ""It looks odd to them [his constituents] , at best, and for some people it would look offensive that I was able to retrospectively claim stamp duty on a home that I had bought in Pembrokeshire."
After saying he would be paying back stamp duty of £9,300 he added: "I'm taking responsibility for a claim that now, in the cold light of day, in front of my constituents, looks difficult to justify, and appears wrong to them."
The question is why he didn't find it "odd" and "difficult to justify" when he submitted the claim.
And the obvious answer: because he never imagined it would ever see the light of day.
Old Grumpy has also been looking at Nick Ainger's claims on the Parliamentary website.
Mr Ainger has emerged from the scandal unscathed though one wonders if he wasn't playing the system in his own minor way with his series of claims for exactly £300-worth of food each month - no receipts required.

Black day for democracy

The Parliamentary authorities have now published details of MP's expense claims.
If they thought that would quell public concern they were wrong because the amount of black ink on the documents - redaction is the technical term - renders them essentially meaningless.
Instead there is renewed outrage at what voters perceive as an attempted cover-up.
These justification for these redactions is that it protects MPs' privacy by withholding their addresses though it also serves to conceal the identity of their second homes.
Fortunately, the Daily Telegraph has obtained unabridged copies which have enabled them to identify the most blatant cases of what has become known as "flipping" - the switching of MP's designated second homes in order to maximise financial gain.
Information Commissioner Richard Thomas has said recently that government in all its forms should adopt "an instinctive culture of openness".
“There is now much talk of constitutional reform and re-connecting people with politics". He said. "Freedom of Information must be embedded within this debate. It is a defining feature of modern democracy – a stark reminder that those elected to power and their officials are accountable to the people. The public has the right to know what is done in their name and with their money. Transparency brings greater public understanding and less scope for impropriety or for decisions or activities to be taken behind closed doors which jeopardise public confidence.”
There are encouraging signs at national level that public pressure is beginning to have an effect; the latest manifestation being Gordon Brown's U-turn over the public inquiry into Iraq.
However, Mr Thomas has an uphill task with local government where secrecy is the default position (Information blackout).

Encouraging elites



Former civil servant Ralph Taberrer has launched a fierce attack on comprehensive education.
This is significant because until May last year Mr Taberrer was director general of schools at the Department of Children, Families and Schools and as such was in charge of the comprehensive system.
Since then he has taken up the post of chief schools' officer with the Dubai-based private education provider GEMS where he says it is "humbling" to see Indian children at schools of 5,000 pupils, where costs per head were a sixth those in British state schools, achieve far superior GCSE results.
The blames "inverted snobbery" and "anti-elitism" for the UK system's decline relative to the developing world.
"We have tried a comprehensive system and that is not working," said Mr Tabberer. "The clock's ticking. Everybody else is catching up because they haven't got the same struggle to reconcile fairness and excellence."
He has a point because Britain must be the only country in the world where the description 'clever' is used as an insult.
Fortunately, we don't organise our lives on anti-elitist lines.
When we fall ill we go to see a doctor because we know that they are bright people with a rigorous training who, though not infallible, are much more likely to diagnose our problem and provide a cure than that self-appointed medical expert we met in the saloon bar.
Similarly, we wouldn't want the Lions' selectors to be picking too many Scotsmen in the name of inclusivity.
Any sensible society would foster and value its elites because they alone have the talent to take us to new levels of achievement.
In short, we should exploit elites not envy them.


Hard going


It is now two weeks since I last had a cigarette and it doesn't get any easier.
However, I am doing my best to stick it out.
According to the anti-smoking information provided by the NHS, if I keep it up for twelve months, I will save enough money to either buy a decent second hand car, or take Grumpette on a cruise.
In the meantime, I am being rewarded with an upgrade to the £4.99 Chilean (£5.99 on Fridays, birthdays and Bank Holidays).
Though I should say it doesn't quite have the same appeal as when each sip was accompanied by a drag on the fag.


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