3 June 2003

Well connected

I had hoped to give you the definitive story about the Hall/Ryan relationship this week but, unfortunately, my Pembroke Dock mole has got cold feet.
I have despatched two pairs of woolly socks.
However, I have some interesting information from the Irish Company Registration Office (ICRO) website which should help to keep the pot boiling.
According to accounts recently filed at ICRO, O'Riain Associates International Ltd (aka ORA International) which, its recently disappeared website claimed, has branches in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Japan, and which boasted of 42 "successfully completed major projects" worldwide, including one in Pembrokeshire, posted a loss of Euro 4,189 (£3,000) for 2002.
This loss follows a surplus of E3,505 (£2,400) in 2001 and a deficit of E10,314 (£6,800) in 2000.
Vodaphone it ain't!
Not that Dr Ryan is without influence.
The accounts record that, despite struggling to turn a profit on the company's £450-a-day (+ expenses) contract with Pembrokeshire County Council, ORA managed to scrape together enough spare cash to make a contribution of E1000 to Fianna Fail and a further E500 to a Mr Seamus Brennan, who doubles as Chief Whip and Minister of Transport in the Irish government.
That in addition to being the business partner of Pembrokeshire's Minister of Transportation and the Environment Cllr Brian Hall.
He sure moves in exalted circles!


As before

I have recently acquired a copy of the, less than complimentary, Audit Commission report on Social Services in Pembrokeshire.
The report's summary records: "Political leadership has not been strong in setting a strategic direction or in scrutiny. This is set to improve under new political structures."
And the people supplying the political leadership under these "new structures"?
Why, none other than Cllr Bill Hitchings, in charge of policies for the Aged and Infirm, and Roy "Six-foot-under" Folland, whose remit is Health and Welfare.
And who was in charge while the service was going down the tubes?
Why, none other than Cllr Bill Hitchings (Chairman of Social Services 1996-98) and Roy Folland (Vice Chairman 1998-99 and Chairman 1999-2002).
More recently, His Leadership, Cllr Maurice Hughes, has given these two political titans a vote of confidence by appointing them, together with himself, to provide democratic accountability as County Council representatives on the Local Health Group Board.
Heaven help us!

Revisionists

During last October's annual trawl through the County Council's books I came across some irregularities in expense claims submitted by Cllr Hitchings.
These included two trips to London for which he had claimed subsistence allowances of £91.04 and £94.03.
According to a document entitled: "Payments made to Cllr W H Hitchings for the year 2001/2002", which was part of the audit inspection, Cllr Hitchings had been paid these amounts even though no receipts had been provided to support the claims.
Following another trip to London, on 30 January 2002, Cllr Hitchings submitted a claim for £94.03 and was sent a standard letter informing him that the claim was being disallowed for lack of receipts.
In response, he provided bills from the Regents Palace Hotel (£39.00) and the Angus Steak House (£13.86) a total of £52.86.
This was £41.17 less than his initial claim which carried a signed declaration that "I have actually paid the fares and made the other authorised payments shown ..."
In June 2001 Cllr Hitchings made his annual pilgrimage to the Association of Port Health Authority's conference, held that year in Belfast.
On his return he submitted a claim for £319.28 - four days subsistence at £72.82 per day (the statutory maximum)- alongside which the clerk had written "not pd", presumably because there were no receipts.
A quick check of Cllr Hitchings' statement confirmed that no payment had been made in respect of this subsistence claim.
I brought these various anomalies to the attention of the Finance Department on 25 October 2002 and, when my queries went unanswered, by a letter dated 5 November 2002.
On 13 November, I wrote to the District Auditor asking him to investigate the matter.
Just before Christmas a letter arrived from the Director of Finance accompanied by a "revised financial statement" for Cllr Hitchings.
According to this "revised" statement, the £91.04 and £94.03 shown on the original statement had not actually been paid, and a payment of £305.00 is recorded where none appeared before.
The District Audit Service, in a letter dated 28 May 2003, tell me that this £305.00 is in respect of the trip to Belfast. "However, the receipt is currently missing from the Council's records and a copy is being obtained."
Old Grumpy would have thought it a simple matter to ring the hotel in Belfast and ask for a duplicate invoice, but apparently not, because, exactly ten weeks previously, in a letter dated 19 March 2003, the Auditor told me the Council was trying to obtain a copy of this "misplaced" receipt.
I look forward to seeing a copy when it does eventually show up.

 Date of approved duty  Amount claimed  Status of claim  Payment record provided at public inspection Oct 2002  Revised payment record provided 23 December 2002
 26 April 2001  £91.04  No receipts  £91.04  Nil
 26 September 2001  £94.03  No receipts  £94.03  Nil
 30 January 2002  £94.03  No receipts, initially, but receipts eventually provided for £52.86  £52.86  £52.86
 18-21 June  £319.18  No receipts, initially, nor any in file at public audit but Council say that receipt for £305.00 has now been provided (and lost again).  Nil  £305.00

 

Coincidentally, the original statement and its revised counterpart are identical in every respect except for the three items I queried.
I will be writing to the auditor asking for an explanation as to how a document containing three such glaring inaccuracies came to be included in the public audit.

 

Same old story

During my research into the above I dug out my voluminous file on the former Milford Port Health Authority, where Cllr Hitchings used to practice his nefarious expense claiming strategies before it was absorbed into the County Council in 1996.
I was interested to note that his habit of claiming 24 miles for the return journey from Ashdale Lane to Haverfordwest station (it's only 12) stretches back at least to 1993.
While reading through the minutes I came across a report of an incident that occurred in 1994 and I realised how little has changed in the intervening years.
The Port Health Authority were having one of their interminable debates on the launch "John FJ" when they resolved to go into private session because what was to be discussed was "exempt information"..
As the minutes record: "The two members of the press who were present were asked to leave the meeting."
I stood (or sat) my ground.
The minutes again:" [Old Grumpy] of the Milford Mercury asked to be told the relevant empowering Local Government Act, but as this was not to hand, he was told it would be provided later. He was asked again if he would leave the meeting. As he did so, [Old Grumpy] slammed the door behind him. Cllr J Allen-Mirehouse said he felt this was quite unnecessary, and suggested that a letter of complaint be written to the editor of the said newspaper, expressing our sentiments."
In actual fact, all that I asked was that the authority obey the law by identifying the description of the exempt information, in terms of schedule 12A of the Local Government Act 1972, before the public and press were excluded.
Offering to provide the answer later, simply wasn't good enough.
As I would have been perfectly justified not to budge until they fully complied with the law, I thought my slightly over-vigorous closing of the door was a rather mild reaction considering that these clowns had just trampled all over the rights given me by an Act of Parliament.
Unfortunately, wiser counsels prevailed, and the letter to the editor never arrived, so Old Grumpette was denied the opportunity to tell Cllr Allen-Mirehouse and his self-important colleagues where to stick their precious sentiments.


Robbing Peter ...

Two weeks ago, the County Council Cabinet met in secret and agreed to sell the call centre at the Cleddau Bridge.
For some reason neither the secret report, of which I have obtained a copy, nor the minutes of the meeting make any mention of the price for which our assets are being disposed.
Phase 1 of the site is to be sold or leased to Friday Ad at a price to be determined by "external independent valuation".
According to the report this will result in the "safeguarding" of the 80 jobs currently located at the Havens Head business park in Milford Haven "with the expectation of an additional 120 new jobs."
Conversely it means the loss of 200 jobs in Milford Haven.
I smell a political rat.
Phase 2 is to be sold to a property company: Trillium - more accurately Land Services Trillium PLC - "creating 250 jobs".
As the jobs are with the Ministry of Work and Pensions, it is not altogether clear how selling the site to a private sector property company "creates" anything.
Investigations continue.

Planned redundancy

Old Grumpy notices that the meeting of the Planning Committee, scheduled for 20 May, was cancelled because of the late arrival of "a number of consultation replies".
My suspicion is that the real reason for the cancellation is the introduction, in May 2002, of a new constitution which delegates almost all planning decisions to unelected officers (see Iron constitution) leaving the planning committee with virtually nothing to do.
Interestingly, the advent of the new constitution coincided with a huge hike in the special responsibility allowances for the Chairman and Vice Chairman of the committee.
Presumably, somebody in authority decided to "stuff their mouths with gold" to compensate for the loss of power and influence (and workload?) resulting from the new model constitution.
The Chairman gets in excess of £5000 (on top of the £10,000 basic allowance paid to all members), which works out at almost £500 a meeting, while his deputy gets half that amount.
No doubt they have both already written to the Chief Executive asking him to make the appropriate deduction from their next pay cheque!

 

 

Winsel tip has been closed for most of todaPatients log-on, and answer the questions, either from home, or in hospital. Nurses will help if need be. The language used has been carefully crafted to be patient-friendly.
Access-there is a high level of security.
The reviewer needs to be medically qualified, probably a pre-op nurse. The screening then flags up problems, and enable anaesthetists to concentrate their attention on those patients that need more attention.
The advantages of the scheme for patients who wish to use it are: reassurance, but if things are not OK, the problem will be identified and dealt with before the operation; reduces risk and promotes safety; added value by reference to patient information leaflets; reduces travel and appointments: reduces cancellations.
Advantages for staff: Identify problems early; safety; improve theatre efficiency and reduce wastage; better use of resources; reduces cancellations..

y while police and bomb disposal experts deal with a "suspicious object".
It would not have occurred to me that Winsel tip was an obvious terrorist target.
Unless, that is, someone is starting a litter bomb campaign.

 

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