June 20 2006


Mobile goalposts

Old Grumpy notices that a vacancy has arisen for a Pembrokeshire county councillor to serve as non-executive board member on Milford Haven Port Authority (MHPA).
MHPA is a strange constitutional creature because it is a Trust Port, though I must admit that whenever I see "MHPA" and "trust" in the same sentence the words that come immediately to mind are: "about as far as I could throw them". (see Foregone conclusion).
When I applied for a similar post last year one of the two-man interviewing panel, county council Leader John Davies, wanted to know how a member of the council's opposition could carry out the liaison function between MHPA and the county council.
As I explained to Cllr Davies, there was no indication in the job description that whoever was appointed was supposed to act as go-between.
Indeed, the blurb that accompanied the application forms informed potential board members that that they were required to accept : ". . . that as a Member [of the MHPA board] they will be working in the best interests of the Authority [MHPA] and not in any other capacity e.g. on behalf of a nominating or representative body, or as a defender of functional or sectional interests." (see Divided loyalties).
I notice the advert for this latest vacancy tries to get round this problem, whilst at the same time ensuring that the person appointed will be a member of the ruling clique, because added to last year's job description are the words "we are seeking candidates whose appointment can demonstrate the consultation link with Pembrokeshire County Council", whatever that means.
This is interesting because in 2000 the county council successfully promoted Eric Harries' candidacy for the post.
It is not easy to see how he managed to "demonstrate the consultation link" because just a year earlier the electors of Hubberston had given him the boot.
Still, absolute power allows for no argument.

Slippery definitions


A reader has kindly provided me with a copy of the election address published by Cllr Anne Hughes' during the 2004 county council campaign.
Old Grumpy reads that, if elected, Mrs Hughes promises the voters of Milford Central that she will be a "true independent".
In fact, so keen is she to get this message across that she repeats the words "true independent" no less than four times.
Now, the usual intention when associating an adjective like true with a noun - in this case independent - is to qualify or quantify the noun's meaning.
And the opposite of true independent is false independent.
In this context, the false independents are those who belong to the Independent Political Group, because it is not logically possible be both an independent and a member of a political group.
As if to emphasise this point, Cllr Hughes tells the voters: "I am standing as a true independent with no political allegiance to any party. I WILL NOT abide or be controlled by party policy." (Cllr Hughes' emphasis throughout).
This resolve lasted precisely the three days between the votes being counted (Friday am 11 June 2004) and the meeting of the IPG held in county hall at 11 am on Monday 14 June.
When, on Monday 21 June, Cllr Hughes was asked by a Mercury reporter whether she had joined the IPG she admitted that she had attended an IPG meeting on the previous Monday (June 14) when Cllr John Davies had been the sole nominee for the post of Leader of Council, but she had not formally joined up.
However, on 21 June Cllr Hughes told the Mercury: "I've got a lot to learn about structures and how manoeuvres are made. Until I know what's happening and whether I can accept the way things are going, I'm standing back."
When the Mercury rang her on the following Wednesday [23 June] seeking to clarify exactly when she had signed up, Cllr Hughes accused the reporter of victimisation and hung up.
It is easy to understand why Cllr Hughes would be touchy about this subject because, when she told the Mercury all that stuff about manoeuvres and standing back on 21 June, she had already been a fully signed up member for the best part of a week.
My understanding is that, at the meeting of 14 June, at which Cllr Hughes was present, the document, a copy of which can be found at Party animals,was passed around the room for members to sign.
Cllr Hughes' name is tenth on the list, ahead of such IPG luminaries as Brian Hall, Alwyn Luke and John Davies (who, you will remember, the June 14 meeting agreed to nominate as council Leader).
The membership list is actually dated 21 June but that is because the leadership decided to wait until the stragglers, who had been unable to attend the 14 June meeting, had been shepherded into the fold.
It is richly ironic that, despite his promise that his administration would be conducted in accordance with the "highest ethical standards", the Leader rewarded both Cllr Hughes and Cllr Jim Codd (see Party animals) with assistant cabinet posts (£4,500 special responsibility allowance) though it should be noted that, just over twelve months later, in order to restore order to the ranks of the payroll vote, Cllr Codd was consigned to the back benches (see Balancing act).

Creative arithmetic

As well as misleading the electorate, the members of the IPG also go in for a bit of self-deception.
Several members have told me in the tearoom that the reason they joined the political group was to prevent Labour from dominating the council.
A few weeks ago, I was in a local hostelry with my socialist friend when we struck up a conversation with one of the more intelligent members of the IPG (N.B. this is not necessarily a compliment).
He is one of the old stagers who was elected to the council council on its inception in 1995 and he explained that, once the, then, Labour leader Jackie Lawrence announced that her party would be operating as a political group, the Independents had either to follow suit, or allow Labour to take charge.
This misconception is based on a misreading of the statutory rules on political balance which state that the majority party in the authority must have the majority of seats on all committees.
As I recall, back in 1995, Labour held 15 of the 60 seats.
Clearly, if the Independents had not formed themselves into a political group, Labour would have been the largest party but, with only 25% of the seats, they wouldn't have been the majority party.
I realise that this distinction might not be immediately obvious to people who are unable to understand that Independent Political Group is an oxymoron, but it will be crystal clear to to the cream of the county's intelligentsia who read this column
Obviously, if there is no majority group, then this rule does not apply and the other rules, particularly the one that provides that no party shall have a greater proportion of the seats on any committee than the proportion of its seats on the whole authority, come into play.
So, in a council made up of a15-strong Labour Political Group and 45 independent independents, the independents would have 75% of the committee seats to Labour's 25%.
The main difference between that situation and the what we have at present is that the distribution of special responsibility allowances (and, consequentially, the votes) wouldn't be under the iron control of the ruling junta.
Issues would have to be debated, and members persuaded of the rightness of any particular course of action, rather than proposals being forced through on the back of the IPG's superior voting strength.
I believe, it's called democracy.

Nameless wonders


The Information Commissioner's judgment on my successful appeal against the county council's decision to redact [blank out] the names of senders and recipients of e-mails; referred to in the Ombundsman's report (see Ombudsman's report papa 129) on his investigation into the case of Mrs Stephanie Lawrence, can now be read on the website www.ice.gov.uk (freedom of information/decision notices)
Briefly, following a preliminary investigation, the Ombudsman had written to the council informing them they were in the wrong and that they should consider offering Mrs Lawrence an "appropriate remedy" for the harm and distress the council's shortcomings had caused to her and her family.
The Ombudsman suggested that an "appropriate remedy" would include some sort of financial payment to compensate Mrs Lawrence for the time and trouble of pursuing her case.
It seems that, rather than putting their hands up and seeking an amicable settlement, someone inside the council decided to play what is commonly known as silly buggers.
A series of e-mails was sent around the council which are referred to briefly in the Ombundsman's report.
I requested copies of these e-mails under the Freedom of Information and among those sent to me was the following:
The outcome of this attempt to play cat and mouse was that Mrs Lawrence pressed on with her complaint, resulting in the Ombudsman issuing what can only be described as a devastating indictment of the council's conduct (see Ombudsman's conclusions).
It struck Old Grumpy that the public had a right to know the identities of these brilliant strategists, so I appealed to the Information Commissioner (ICE) against the blacking out of the names.
Just before Christmas I received a letter from the ICE informing me that he had found in my favour.
"I had hoped to persuade the council to release the unredacted information to you," he wrote, "but my efforts have proved unsuccessful. I am therefore drafting a formal Decision Notice, ordering the council to release the information."
You have to wonder why, even after the Commissioner had told the council it was in the wrong, it still insisted on fighting to the last ditch?
What can be said for certain is that, had the final decision been left to the elected members, the officers would have had no difficulty in persuading the IPG to vote in favour of the spurious arguments that so singularly failed to impress the Commissioner.
And that's why it is important in a democracy that we have independent figures such as Judges, Ombudsmen and Commissioners who can make decisions on the merits of the case rather than on the basis of low political calculation.
John Reed, please note.

Pee for planet


I see that the usual carpers and whingers are already out in force with their criticisms of Brian Hall's brilliantly conceived compulsory composting scheme.
Of course, not everyone wants to make compost - particularly those without gardens.
But, with a little bit of imagination, all should be able to find a use for these elegant pieces of plastic sculpture.
Only yesterday, I saw one moving effortlessly across a nearby lawn.
It was only when I moved closer and heard a child's voice chanting "Exterminate! Exterminate" that I realised what was going on.
And, with that easily-removable, low-level door, they could easily be converted for use as a dog kennel or chicken coop.
As for myself, I am delighted to have doubled my composting capacity without it costing me a penny.
However, I would caution people not to get carried away with the supposed environmental benefits of these devices.
It is said they will reduce landfill requirements, though my own experience is that you put an awful lot of stuff in and get very little out and, as the same breakdown processes occur on landfill sites, the savings in terms of cubic yards saved may be negligible.
That said, they will almost certainly lead to significant reductions in the amount of material that needs to be carted to Withyhedge.
As I wrote some time ago, the most environmentally friendly thing you can do is pee on your compost heap.
Not only does this remove the need to use scarce water resources to flush the loo, but it has the added advantage of providing nitrogen that both accelerates the rotting process and fertilises the garden.
I was encouraged to hear Nick Clegg MP; widely fancied (no pun intended) to become the next Lib Dem Leader, give this as his top environmentally-friendly tip on a recent Any Questions.
If I have a complaint it is that the height of these new composters makes this exercise very difficult for men over a certain age.
If I fall off that stepladder and break my neck, comrade Hall will be hearing from Grumpette's solicitors.
But, enough griping and nitpicking because all this extra composting will have far-reaching environmental benefits as a result of the huge increase in biodiversity.
I have already reported on the wide range of creatures that inhabit my present compost heap (grass snakes, slow worms, and bank voles, in particular) and I have even heard of some lucky people whose middens have become the home to some nice furry mammals; commonly known as rats
And, if you don't own a stepladder, I can vouch for the effectiveness of a two-stage process involving a watering can.
So that's why people whitewash the insides of their greenhouses.
Net curtains would look silly, I suppose.

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